Amir Hamza: A Book Review

February 21, 2008 by  


By Ayub Khan, MMNS

The Adventures of Amir Hamza: Lord of the Auspicious Planetary Conjunction.

Written by Ghalib Lakhnavi and Abdullah Bilgrami, translated by Musharraf Ali Farooqi. 948 pp. The Modern Library. $45.

Dastangoi, or story telling is one of those neglected and almost forgotten arts which once enthralled the masses as well the royalty of the Perso-Islamicate world. Story tellers traveled throughout the Persian speaking realm narrating fantastic tales of bravery, courage, faithfulness, betrayal, and cunning. These stories provided instant entertainment in an age when outlets for such indulgences were few. Among this oral tradition of the east, the Dastan-e Amir Hamza occupies a pride of place among such classics as The Arabian Nights and the Shanameh. In the Dastan, Amir Hamza is a composite character of righteousness and bravery loosely based on the personality of Prophet Muhammad’s (s) uncle by the same name.

His hair raising encounters with demons, warriors, tricksters, fairies, kings, and magical creatures would give tough competition to the characters of modern day genre of fantasy writing. Emperor Akbar, at the age of 16, was so taken by the charms of the Dastan that he ordered his artists to produce an illustrated version which would eventually fill 14 enormous volumes. Unfortunately, however, this monumental piece of work was lost and only parts of it survive. It was not until the end of the nineteenth century that a compact one volume Urdu text of the Dastan was produced by Ghalib Lakhnavi and Abdullah Bilgrami. This version has now been faithfully rendered into English by the Toronto based translator and author Musharraf Ali Farooqi.

Farooqi has succeeded in translating the epic in a highly readable manner while remaining faithful to the original Urdu. Sample this: “The gazetteers of miscellanies, tale-bearers of varied annals, the enlightened in the ethereal realms of legend writing, and recokeners of the subtle issues of eloquence thus gallop the noble steed of the pen through the field of composition, and spur on the delightful tale.”

The fantastic tales coupled with the textual deftness of the translator, The Adventures of the Amir Hamza, Lord of the Auspicious Planetary Conjunction, keeps the reader fixated from start to the finish. It was not without reason that Maulana Ashraf Ali Thanwi in his famous Baheshti Zewar had warned proper women from reading the Dastan. Musharraf Ali Farooqi, who is coincidentally the grand-nephew of Maulana Thanwi, takes it even further. He writes, “Taking modern-day sensibilities into account, I would just add that men, too, must not sit down with this book without a bottle of smelling salts close at hand.” The book’s lucidity and ornamentation is enough to transfer anyone into an enchanted world.

The Dastan provides an insight into the society of the Perso-Islamicate world complete with the courtly manners, dress, myths, and legends. In a world increasingly marked by rhetoric of clash of civilizations the appearance of this translation is a fitting reply to the likes of Bernard Lewis who mock the supposed lack of artistic excellence in the Islamic civilization. More importantly it reinforces the qualities that are common to all: courage, truthfulness, fidelity, and honor.

Coinciding with the publication of this translation, it is hopeful to note that there has been a revival of sorts in the Dastangoi tradition in India and Pakistan. While Mahmood Farooqi and Murtaza Danish Hussaini have kept the tradition alive in India, there is evidence that it is gaining currency in Pakistan as well. Karachi’s International Schools Educational Olympiad 2008 for the first time held a Dastangoi theater performance competition last month.

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5 Responses to “Amir Hamza: A Book Review”

  1. Farooque Ahmed on May 25th, 2010 7:00 am

    We find two intriguing findings in history that need to be sorted out. First of all, the name Sahib-i-qiran was given to Amir Hamza (of Dastan-e-Amir Hamza) by historians. This same title was also given to Amir Timur (Timurlane) by later historians of mainly Mughalists pursuits. Interesting thing is that both Amir Hamza and Amir Timur Timur reached north east India. Amir Hamza reached North east India, Bengal, Himalayan tracks,Cachar, Assam, Manipur and even China and Arakan and Maungdaw of Burma (now Myanmar) sometime between 616-624 AD (see sp. Asim Roy, 1983, Syncretistic Traditions of Early Bengali Muslims). Many other Manipur anals and other literary sources can also support this point.
    Yet in a book Baharistan-i-Ghaybi by Mirza Nathan in c. 1620 AD, he mentions a name Amir Timur Sahib-i-Qiran who had come to Cachar (NE India) near Khasia (Khasi hiils) and Jaintia hills. Now Manipuri Historian point point out that it is very unlikely that Amir Timur reached in that reason though we find some refrence that Amir Timur reached/invaded upto lower Ganga valley of eastern India. Now researchers poit out that this, Sahib Qiran is actually Amir Hamza, who also ruled northern Arakan for some time with great justice, before he left and died and Battle of Uhud in 625 AD who was rightly called Lion of Islam by Prophet Muhammad (s). A am also putting one quote below (from website):
    Source: (http://historyview.blogspot.com/2008/05/titles-of-timur.html)
    (Saahib-i-Qiraani – Lord of the Fortuitous Conjunction)

    “Saahib-i-Qiraani or Sahib-i-Qirani or Sahib Ul Qiran was common title for Timur in official and court chronicals of his times as well as in the later Timurid and Mughal ones.
    Saahib or Sahib is from Arabic “S H B” ??? and means lord. Qiraani means Fortuitous Conjunction. Though Qiraani or Qiran can also be related to the word horn ( also used for Dhul Qarnayan in the Quran ?? ????? ).
    It is said that at the time of the birth of Timur Jupiter and Venus were in conjunction and this is the raison d’etre of this title. Timur is referred to as Saahib-i-Qiraani whenever the Timurid and Mughal princes and chroniclers needed to use a tone of awe and whenever there was a need to impress divine acceptance of Timur’s success and destiny. For example the Akbarnama speaks of Timur mostly as Sahib-i-Qirani though that could also be in order to reinforce the beneficence of Akbar’s (a descendant of Timur) own fortuitous birth stars on the reader.
    This title was also often represented on Timur’s personal standard during battles. It was supposed to represent Timur’s great luck in battle and also the divine assistance which was accorded to him for utterly vanquishing his enemies. Hence it worked as a terror tactic for the enemies and as a motivation for his own troops and commanders. Sahib-i-Qiraani also often entered the Khutbas read in the name of Timur.
    Sahib-i-Qiran is also often used as a title for Amir Hamza (Prophet Muhammad’s (s) uncle) in the Persian and Urdu versions of the Hamzanama (the tales of Amir Hamza) but a stand alone Sahib-i-Qiran would almost always refer to Timur.”
    For your information, Amir Hamza embraced Islam in 616 AD, before Saad bin Waqqas. It is very likely that Amir Hamza also like Waqqas visited to China from Abyssinia by Prophet’s permission during early period of Islam. Some Historians beleive, Hamza, Waqqas and other crew rather landed in Chittagong (Bangladesh) or Arakan (Burma) and they managed to proceed to China; however Hamza stayed back in Burma and married a wife there and later swayed back to NE India where he defeated many local kings. When he reached in this part of the world, the Holy Quran was not even wholly revealed. But, he preached the religion of Prophet Muhammad (s), of Allah and monotheism. After, he left, it is believed, many relapsed to aposthasy, buit later Sufis tried to bring them to true faith. Most significant one was the Arab preacher team from Makka who landed in Chittagong in 636 AD, the year an Arab navy landed in Thana near Bombay in a peaceful mission that was welcomed by Rastrakuta king of India. The arriva of that Makki team in Chittagong gave rise to a Makki era in 636 AD who is the earliest Muslim ethnic group, now a clan in Manipur state of NE India where Aribam (after Aribah/Arab) is the earlieat clan. Now, there are 82 Manipuri speaking Muslim (Meite-Pangal or Pangal) clans in Manipur that according to 2001 Census of Govt. forms 7.7 percent of state population of Manipur with Muslim (Pangal) population being 2.3 million.

    Indeed, Amir Hamza, Saad bin Waqqas, Ashim Shah and Qutwan Khan are the ancestors of Manipuri Muslims since king Naophang Ahal period (594-624 AD) of the state. Indeed, Dr. Irengba Mohendro Singh, a London-based academician and Researcher maintains in his writings that Manipuri Muslims have been living in Manipur since around 600 AD (ostensibly due to Amir Hamza factor).

  2. Abdul Wahab Khan on November 29th, 2010 5:00 am

    Hamza alias Amir Hamza (of Urdu/Persian) alias Hamza ibn Abd al-Muttalib (b.568- d.625) ventured in Northeast India, Burma and China by land routes on Persia-Sind -Kamrup route inbetween 590-612 before he went back to Arabia, and embraced Islam in 616 with Umar (later Second Caliph). Sad ibn abi Waqqason the other hand embraced Islam in 611 and was a main figure in the first immigration (hijri) to Abyssinia in 614-5 from where he with some Sahabas including Jahsh, Jafar ibn Abu Talib, Wahb abi Kabcha reached Indian coast (then) of Chittagong in 615 and proceeded to hinterlands Kamrup-Cachar-Kamrup where they preached among the Pang (Bang) and then proceeded to southern China by land route in 616 where they preached among the Hui Chi (later Hui Hui) who also embraced Islam like the Pangs (Bangs) in Northeast India (see also: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Islam_in_China )

  3. Abdul Wahab Khan on December 4th, 2010 1:09 am

    Identities of Wahb Abu Kabcha (Wahab abi Kabcha), Jahsh and Jafar ibn Abu Talib:

    The real name of Wahab abu Kabcha is Wahab bin Abdul Uzza. Wahab’s father Abdul Uzza is also known as Abu Kabshah. So, Wahab abu Kabcha is the brother of Al-Harith bin Abdul Uzza bin Quasayy bin Kilab. Al-Harith is the husband of Halima, the wet nurse of Prophet Muhammad (s) when he was a child. So, Wahab Abu Kabcha (Kabsha) is one of the extended uncles of Prophet Muhammad (s). See the text: “The Prophet was entrusted to Halimah bint Abi Dhuayb from Bani Sa’d bin Bakr. Her husband was Al-Harith bin Abdul Uzza called Abi Kabshah, from the same tribe” (Safi-ur Rahman Al-Mubarakpuri, 2009, Biography of the Noble Prophet (Ar-Raheeq al-Makhtum: The Sealed Nectar: Biography of the Noble Prophet), Madinah: Islamic University of Al-Madinah al-Munawwarah, page 72). It is noted in other accounts that Wahab Abu Kabcha (son of Abdul Uzza alias Abu Kabsha/Kabcha) reached Canton by sea in 629 CE.

    Sad ibn abi Waqqas (b.594-d.678) was the maternal uncle of Prophet Muhammad (s). Jahsh (Jehsh) is the father of Zainab, one of the wives of Prophet Muhammad. So, Jahsh was a father in law of Prophet Muhammad (s). Jafar was the son of Abu Talib, an uncle of Prophet Muhammad (s), hence his name was Jafar ibn Abu Talib.

  4. Farooque Ahmed on December 4th, 2010 3:25 am

    On Sad ibn abi Waqqas and Wahab Abu Kabsha:

    Two Sources are given below from which we can understand that Islam was introduced in China at the commencement of Tang (Dynasty) in 618. This stands well with earlier findings and belief that Sad ibn abi Waqqas arrived in China in around 617-18 CE. Now there is a critical issue that Sad ibn abi Waqqas and Wahab Abu Kabcha might be the same person who arrived in China while they were two different Arabian Sahabas.
    Now it is understood from the below sources that M. Dabry de Thiersant was the one who identified him with Sarta, Sa-ka-pa or Wang-ka-ze ( noted as a maternal uncle of Muhammad (s) in each case) with Wahab ibn Abi Kabshah. (P. Dabry de Thiersant, 1878, Le Mahome’tisme en Chine, Paris). He was later quoted by others. While there is possibility that Sad ibn abi Waqqas and Wahab abu Kabcha (Kabshah) might have come together or in certain different periods of time. See the given sources below:-

    SOURCE 1:
    http://www.archive.org/stream/…/preachingofislam00arnouoft_djvu.txt
    T. W, Arnold, 1896, The Preaching of Islam (a history of the propagation of the Muslim faith), Westminster: Archibald Constable & Co., pp. 249-251 noted:

    “It is at this period, at the commencement of the Thang dynasty (618-907), that mention is first made of the Arabs in the Chinese annals. The Chinese chroniclers speak of the arrival in Canton of a great number of strangers from the kingdom of Annam, Cambodge, Medina and several other countries.” That these men were certainly Arabs and also Muslims may be determined from the details given of their habits and religious observances:” These strangers worshipped the heaven (i.e. God), and had neither statue, idol nor image in their temples. The kingdom of Medina is close to that of India: in this kingdom originated the religion of these strangers, which is different to that of Buddha. They do not eat pork or drink wine and they regard as unclean the flesh of any animal not killed by themselves. They are nowadays called Hoey-hoey (Hui Hui). They had a temple called the temple of the Blessed Memory (i.e. the mosque built by Wahab ibn Abi Kabshah), which was built at the commencement of the Thang dynasty. At the side of the temple is a large round tower, 160 feet high, called Kang-ta (the undecorated tower. These strangers went every day to this temple to perform their ceremonies. After having asked and obtained the Emperor’s permission to reside in Canton, they built magnificent houses, of a different style to that of our country. They were very rich and obeyed a chief chosen by themselves.” It is impossible to tell with certainty (and the Chinese Muhammadans themselves can only offer conjectures on the matter), who was the leader of this colony in Canton. In their traditional accounts his name is variously given as Sarta, Sa-ka-pa, (this name is important, as pointing to the fact that he was a Sahabi, or companion of the Prophet), or Wang-ka-ze, but in each case he is stated to have been a maternal uncle of Muhammad. M. Dabry de Thiersant identifies him with Wahab ibn Abi Kabshah, who is said to have stood in that relationship to the Prophet; and he considers that the following account, derived from native Muhammadan sources and disentangled from among the legends and other embellishments that have gathered round the story of their great founder, may be taken to represent the main historical facts of his life. In the year 628 A.D. (A.H. 6, called in Arabian history, the year of the missions), Wahab ibn Abi Kabshah was sent by the Prophet to China to carry presents to the Emperor and announce to him the new religion. He was graciously received in Canton, and permission granted him to build a mosque, and the right of freely professing their religion in the empire was given to him and his co-religionists. After the accomplishment of his mission, he returned to Arabia in 632, but to his great grief found that the Prophet had died that same year. He must have stayed in Arabia a short time, because when he set out again for China, he took with him a copy of the Qur’an, which was first collected by the order of Abu Bakr in the eleventh or twelfth year of the Hijrah (a.d. 633-4). He died on his arrival at Canton, exhausted by the fatigues of his journey, and was buried in one of the suburbs of the city, where his tomb is still an object of reverence for all the Muhammadans of China. Around the mosque built by their founder, the little colony of Arab traders grew and flourished, living in perfectly friendly relations with their Chinese neighbours, their commercial interests being identical. They appear to have lived for some time as a foreign community, for an Arab merchant (about the middle of the ninth century) says that at that time the Muhammadans of the city of Canton had their own qadi, and did not pray for the Emperor of China, but for their own sovereign. This Muslim community, thus settled in Canton, speedily multiplied, partly through new arrivals, partly by marriage with the Chinese and by conversions from among them. In 758, however, they received an important addition to their numbers in 4000 Arab soldiers who had been sent by the Caliph Al Mansur to help the Emperor Sah-Tsung in crushing a rebellion that had broken out against him.”

    *See also: Thiersant (P. Dabry de): Le Mahome’tisme en Chine. (Paris, 1878.)

    SOURCE 2:
    http://www.archive.org/…/outlinesofislami031142mbp_djvu.txt
    A. M. A. Shushteby, 1938, Outlines of Islamic Culture, volume 1: Historical and Cultural Aspects, The Bangalore Press, Bangalore City, Page.25 noted:

    “According to Chinese tradition, a certain S’ad, son of Vaqqas, or Wahab, the son of Abu-Kabshah, was the first Muslim who reached Canton by sea, as early as 629 AD.”

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