Some of our best-known Mughal manuscripts in the British Library’s Persian collection have already been digitised. These include the imperial Akbarnāmah (Or.12988 ), Akbar’s copy of Nizami’s Khamsah (Or.12208), and the Vāqiʻāt-i Bāburī, ‘Memoirs of Babur’, (Or.3714), to mention just a few. However far more works remain undigitised and many are comparatively little-known. Over the coming months we’ll be publicising some of these in the hope that people will become more familiar with them.
From the mid-10th century ce, one of history’s great scientific eras began to flourish across Islamic lands.
Like the European Renaissance, it was marked as much by cultural exchange, synthesis and dialog as it was by individual discovery. Connections forged among scholars and scientists of Islamic lands with contemporaries and predecessors beyond their own borders led to an unprecedented pooling of knowledge over generations and continents. The Indus Valley and the wider Indian subcontinent proved to be deep wells of the scholarship that gradually came to be known westward via translation into Arabic as well as Persian. From the observations of philosophers to the calculations of mathematicians, from the models of astronomers to the treatises of physicians, these works helped shape the era that became known as “the golden age of Islamic science” and—much later—our own.
After the Muslim conquest of India, several rulers, including most notably the Mughal emperors of the 16th and early 17th centuries, beginning with Akbar the Great, facilitated translations of Indian literature into Persian and Arabic. Several well-known Indian books such as Mahabharata, parts of the Vedas, Yoga-Vasistha, Bhagavad-Gita and Bhagavata Purana were thus translated. The most fundamental views contained within these texts express the crux of natural philosophy: a universe in constant transformation, wherein elements are interconnected, sharing in absolute unity and having a sequence of creation. The Yoga-Vasistha, for example, a collection of stories and fables nearly 30,000 verses in length, was appreciated for its “realities, diverse morals, and remarkable advice.”
Under Dara Shukoh some 50 major Indian works were translated, among them the Upanishads, the pinnacle part of the Vedas script, which he considered imbued with the power to make people “imperishable, unsolicitous and eternally liberated.” His rendering was later translated into Latin in the 18th century by Anquetil Duperron of France. It was read in turn by the eminent 19th-century German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, who was so impressed by the universality of its message that he kept a copy open on a table near his bed.
Much of what Akbar and his successors learned to value, however, had already been observed centuries before. During his years in India in the 11th century, Abu al-Rayan al-Biruni, an all-around erudite from Kath in Central Asia, studied Sanskrit and researched the arts, literature and science. He analyzed meta-physics in Vedic texts and translated a number of them into Arabic, including selections from Patanjali’sYoga-Sutras, a philosophical compilation, and the 700-verse Bhagavad-Gita. In his own book, Kitab Ta’rikh al-Hind (Book of Indian History, popularly known as Alberuni’s India), he introduced Muslim readers to Indian scholarly culture. Al-Biruni admits in the introduction that despite cultural and linguistic barriers, his book is an attempt to offer “the essential facts for any Muslim who wanted to converse with Hindus and to discuss with them questions of religion, science, or literature.”
He also identiﬁes crossovers between Indian sci-ence and literature, notably Kalila wa Dimna (Kalila and Dimna), a celebrated book in the Middle East since the early medieval period. Based on an earlier Indian work, Panchatantra (Five Principles), it was written down from the oral tradition in the third century BCE, and it uses animal fables (Kalila and Dimna are jackals) to tell stories about human conduct and the arts of governance.
In conjunction with the British Library’s Learning Team, we recently held a very successful study day: Mughal India: Art and Culture. To coincide with the event, we have installed three new ʻMughalʼ manuscripts in the Sir John Ritblat Treasures Gallery. These are: A Royal copy of Nizami’s ‘Five poems’, dating from Herat, ca.1494 (Or. 6810, f. 3r), A mother rebukes her arrogant son, a copy of Saʻdi’s Būstān dated at Agra, 1629 (Add. 27262, f. 145r) and, the subject of my post today, Humayun received by the Safavid ruler Shah Tahmasp of Iran, from Abu’l-Fazl’s Akbarnāmah, dating from Agra, ca. 1602-3 (Or. 12988, f. 98r).
For many viewers, the subject of most Indian paintings is understandable even without a specialist’s knowledge of the identity and history of the figures portrayed. For example, images of a princely couple listening to music on a palace terrace can be appreciated without needing to know the historical or literary identity of the protagonists. Beyond this basic intelligibility, however, many works feature complex subject matter, symbolic nuances, and/or compositional substructures that require an in-depth explanation to understand their layers of meaning.
Inspired by the iconography and mythology of Western divinity and sovereignty featured in the European prints brought to India, the Mughals and other Islamic dynasties of India soon appropriated the visual attributes of the divine and the regal for their own glorification. Chief among these emulated personages were Solomon and David, kings of ancient Israel; Orpheus and the philosopher Plato, both legendary musicians and poets of ancient Greece; and Majnun, the famous Arabic poet and unconsummated paramour of his beloved Layla. The unifying thread in the stories of these influential personalities was that each was graced with the ability to tame and control animals by means of his musical ability and/or spiritual authority.
By Ursula Sims-Williams, Asian and African Collections
This copy of the Shāhnāmah is thought to date originally from the 15th century. Unfortunately it has no colophon but it was extensively refurbished in India at the beginning of the 17th century when the 90 illustrations were added. These are numbered consecutively 1-91, only lacking no. 37 which, together with a gap of about 150 verses, is missing at the beginning of the story of Bīzhan and Manīzhah between folios 201v and 202r. The manuscript was altered again in the first half of the 18th century when elaborate paper guards and markers were added. The magnificent decorated binding, however, dates from the early 17th century.