Najm Hosain Syed traces the trajectory of the tale of Amir Hamza’s adventures
In his essay on Maulvi Ghulam Rasool’s Punjabi verse version of the Dastan-e Amir Hamza, Najm Hosain Syed has tried to trace the trajectory of the tale of the adventures of the fictional character called Amir Hamza. The first time it came out in print form, in Urdu, was in the Fort William College edition which was ‘translated’ from Persian by Khalil Khan Ashk in 1801 on the suggestion of John Gilchrist, the head of the College established with permission from the British East India Company.
The introduction only informed the reader that the Urdu text was translated from the Persian original which was produced by someone during the reign of Mahmud Ghaznavi. Syed refers to the book Urdu Dastan by Dr Suhail Bukhari, in which the Persian prose text was attributed to one Taqi Bahar, who in turn claims to have an older Persian text called Maghazi-e Hamza as the inspiration of his work.
But the hero of the Maghazi was not the same person as the Amir Hamza of Taqi’s tale. That Hamza was from Khorasan and his full name was Hamza bin Abdullah as-Shari al-Khareji. This local Hamza was known to have fought against the Abbasid caliph-monarch Haroon-ur Rasheed in the name of religion. The local warriors from Seestan, Makran, Sindh and Khorasan are said to have joined him in the battle which lasted till the Caliph died. After which Hamza left, inexplicably, for Sarandip (Ceylon) and China, leaving behind 5000 savars to protect the powerless against the powerful.
According to Bahar, the devotees of Hamza bin Abdullah might have exaggerated their hero’s stature to the extent of inventing a new genealogy for him. He was transformed into Hamza bin Abdul Muttalib and so he stays to this day.
No one can say for sure how far the research of Bahar is to be believed, but stories do travel across countries and communities for certain deep-seated reasons of power politics near the top and its resistance at the lower levels. Whenever powerless people rise to resist powerful invaders, they create their own stories, Syed says. The conquerors do not find it agreeable, so they -- or rather the pen-pusher Alims in their service -- recast people’s stories into new forms, changing the focus and removing the sting. The stories that they create play up the doings of the powerful, larger than life heroes, and the stories of the common, powerless people are made to hide behind these spectacular adventures.
So it is as likely as otherwise that the tales invented by common people resisting the Abbasid Caliph of Baghdad were turned into the heroic deeds of Hamza Abdullah. Before that similar people had used similar cultural tools to fight against the Umayyad caliphate of Damascus. Umayyads lost the throne to Abbasids and the capital was shifted from Damascus to Baghdad. But the conquered people of Persia, Seestan, Khorasan and Hind continue to suffer the same fate as the victors established their own lineage of power.
The Abbasids claimed their ancestry to Abbas bin Abdul Muttalib; Hamza was Abbas’ brother. So the Hamza from Khorasan was turned into a fictional character that resembles the Hamza bin Abdul Muttalib of history as he carries the same name, although the creators of this Badshahi fiction for the pleasure and benefit of Mahmud Ghaznavi have used the fictional allowance of what could be called plausible deniability.
Syed points out that the imaginary Amir Hamza is born, just like the historical Hamza, during the reign of Nausherwan, the Persian king. This dastani Hamza, being in possession of superhuman powers, invades the lands of Iran, Hindustan, China, Turkistan, Room and Farang to force, by his sword, the warriors of those lands into the ranks of his comrades. He is capable of overcoming the earthly limitations to kill demons and make merry with fairies. He fights Nausherwan all his life and fills his opponent’s heart with his terror; however, he stops short of dethroning Nausherwan. He shakes his throne with one hand and keeps it in place with the other.
No one can say for sure how much of the Maghazi-e Hamza was still alive in people’s consciousness when the time of Mahmud Ghaznavi’s Turk kingdom came. However, it would not be a surprise if Mahmud had been in need -- in addition to declaring himself heir to the ancient Persian kings through Ferdousi’s Shahnameh -- to appropriate the tales of the Arab ascendency as well. Just like Hamza Abdullah, he had risen from Khorasan to establish his kingdom, and had the ambition to enhance it as an empire, conquering the adjoining countries.
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By acknowledging the Baghdad’s supremacy only in name, Mahmud aspired to become the waris of the 250-year-old Arab imperial conquests as well. So it is possible to see Mahmud behind the guise of the imaginary Hamza bin Abdul Muttalib in the tale woven by his courtiers.
The struggle between Amir Hamza and Nausherwan can be read as the goings on in the power politics of the Umayyad and Abbasid eras. Nausherwan is the symbol of the ancient Persian kingdom, as his grand vizier, Buzurgmehr, symbolises the ancient wisdom of Persia. According to the dastan fiction, he knows that Hamza’s onslaught and conquests have the divine sanction and support at their back. As per the dastan’s logic, the ancient Persian wisdom knows and acknowledges the truth represented by the Arabic religion and, in fact, keen to wed itself to the conquering ideology; indeed the Persian beauty is no less keen to do precisely that.
Mehrnigar, Nausherwan’s daughter, is in love with Hamza. Nausherwan is forced eventually to give her in marriage to Hamza. Due to this blessed wedlock, Nausherwan, even when half-heartedly fighting with his daughter’s husband, wishes him to be the victor, as, after all, his continuing to be the king of Persia lies in the divinely supported hands of Amir Hamza, the son-in-law. But Nausherwan is misled by the evil Bakhtak into resisting the lashkar-e Islam every now and then; in doing this, he intermittently represents the ancient Ashraaf of Persia who wish to put up a fight with the Arab invaders.
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It is no surprise that Mahmud wants to look like Hamza, as it links him with the Arab caliphate, and provides him a way out of his Turk Khorasani origin as well. The royal elites of Persia had historically been fighting against Turk invaders from Khorasan; this fight had come to an end only when the Baghdad Caliphate conquered Turkistan. Not only does the dastani Amir Hamza allow the Persian king to keep his throne, he even gifts his imaginary conquered countries of Hindustan and China to him to keep and rule. By becoming the joint heir to the Persian and Arab monarchs, Mahmud wishes to disguise his local, Khorasani Turkish origin and be in an invincible political position to deal with the traditional Persian-Khorasani rivalry.
Stories such as Hamza’s do not travel from place to place without a reason. This phenomenon should, according to Syed, be kept in mind while looking at the dastan’s revival in Urdu and other languages under the British rule. What is the tale invented or recycled to suit the power politics of Mahmud Ghaznavi doing in its new, Urdu version of 1801, patronised by the British East India Company?
By the end of the seventeenth century, the Company had conquered the local southern and eastern kingdoms of the subcontinent and their new Badshahi was in an ascending phase. It wanted now to become the heir to the great Mughals of the Delhi throne. By forcing the parwana (license) out of them to collect the revenue and restricting Mughal kings to their immediate surrounding in Delhi, the Company had generously allowed the obedient local rulers to keep their conquered throne, just as Amir Hamza had done with Nausherwan.
But the thing to note is that alongside the Company officials, there were also scholars -- Orientalists -- who were striving hard to explore the subcontinent’s past. Not just that, they were also busy in creating various past histories and inculcating them into the newly emerging classes of conquered people.
The next Urdu version of Amir Hamza’s Dastan came out in 1855 -- only months after the annexation of Oudh by the Company -- and it became the first of a series of many printings of the tale, spreading its magic far and wide seemingly with no end in sight. The magic was further enhanced with the introduction of printing technology.
Was something inside the defeated Ashraaf trying to fulfil their wish -- frustrated in real life -- of turning the magic of the Angrez into that of Afrasiab and win the battle in the imagined world that had already been lost on the ground?
This is the second part of a fortnightly series on the subject