The idle ramblings of a Jack of some trades, Master of none

Mar 10, 2008


Szerelem had a bit of an unwell last week but spent it productively: reading From The Holy Mountain by William Dalrymple, among doing other things. And since increasingly my posts are - take your pick: 1) inspired by, or 2) scavenged from the imagination of - other people, and because a comment I posted there didn't take hold, I'm scribbling away here.

I've been a fan of Mr Dalrymple ever since I read his first book, In Xanadu in 1994. I remember feeling alternately awed and deeply jealous that a mere undergraduate, only a year or so older than I, had already achieved so much: trekked overland from Jerusalem to China, met interesting people, dated (and travelled with, and been dumped by) big-breasted girls, and actually published a book that was both erudite and very humorous. What had I achieved at that point? Nothing. (More to the point: what have I achieved fourteen years later? Well, other than knowing how to say in French that there is a traffic jam, nothing.)

His next three books were superb as well. The City of Djinns introduced me to aspects of Delhi I had been unaware of, and I learned a lot about Mughal history, particularly that of the later greats - Jahangir and Shah Jahan and Aurangzeb - that no NCERT textbook would have ever covered. Till his book came along, there was only the historically superb but unnecessarily prurient Delhi by Khushwant Singh available that told the story of this greatest of cities. During my three years of college in Delhi, I had lurked in every nook and cranny of history I could think of and locate, but Dalrymple had completely outdone me, both in his knowledge of and in his access to the historical monuments that dotted the city. The seeds of his later theses of a golden age of mutual tolerance between the great faiths had been laid at this point.

In From The Holy Mountain, he did the rounds of the Middle-East trying to locate as many centres of lingering Christendom as remained there, and bemoaning the decimation of an old culture under the overwhelming majority of Muslims in those lands. He was following a pilgrimage of John Moschos, a monk of the 6th century who went from monastery to monastery across Byzantium, the Levant and Egypt, learning all he could from mystics, flagellants, saints and bishops. For the most part, Dalrymple's journalistic approach was - as far as I could tell - not biased either for Christianity or Islam. But every once in a while, he regretted the loss of the older faith its original heartland, contending perhaps that had the Christians remained strong, if the Crusades hadn't happened, there might have been more understanding and amity between them and the other Abrahamic religions.

The Age of Kali, the fourth of Dalrymple's books, was a collection of journalistic pieces on the subcontinent. He entertainingly and astutely covered such varied topics as Maharanis, guerrillas, Sufi pirs in Pakistan, and anti-globalism in the form of wreckers of KFC outlets.

At this point, Dalrymple switched gears entirely and moved onto his pet thesis - that religions can and did coexist, and did so amicably and to mutual gain. His published op-eds and articles began to expound on this thesis by concentrating on two main ideas. First, that the clash between Christianity and India (both Muslim and Hindu) was a development late in the British conquest of the subcontinent. The first traders who came to India from England were awed by the Mughals and in no position to sniff loftily at the customs of the natives. By the time the East India Company became the pre-eminent power in India, the old order had faded away. At this time, the likes of Ochterlony (his favourite Brit) adopted Indian customs, married many wives and paraded through Delhi on elephant-back like the nabobs of old; William Jones studied Persian, Urdu and Arabic, and translated works of significance into English; other Englishmen were going native as well and were not loath to do so. Christian fundamentalism only began to rear its head with the dawn of the Victorian age, by which time India was pretty much subjugated, and the white man could regard the natives with ill-concealed contempt, and consider the entire works of the East unworthy of a single shelf of good ol' Western knowledge. And so his book The White Mughals deals with that class of Englishmen in that transition period between ecumenism and Christian supremacy, who married natives, adopted their customs, served local potentates, and yet never lost sight of their essentially civilising mission in the East. He makes a startling claim or two: about a third of 'gone native' Britishers willed their estates to their native wives in the early period of colonial rule. The British Army was more than happy to use men like James Skinner (an Anglo-Indian cavalryman of devilish ability) for their own purposes of conquest and subjugation. But consider the converse of these claims: two-thirds either did not adopt Indian customs, or abandoned their native families when they returned to Britain. Likewise, Skinner was for long denied a commission in the British army despite his valour in its service, all because of his mixed-parentage. His commanding officer was affectionate enough to allow Skinner's children to live with his own family back in Britain and study there, but the officer's wife was horrified at having to deal with darkies, and the kids never quite found themselves accepted in British society (though James did make quite a success of his retired life in Delhi). Even more telling - how many British women of the upper classes married into the Indian nobility? And how many of their offspring found themselves accepted back home?

The second thesis is that Islam is fundamentally a moderate religion, especially outside Arabia, mainly because of the benign mysticism of the Sufis. So when people complain about radical Islam, Dalrymple can point out that it's only the Wahhabi and Iranian versions that are so rigid, and can wax eloquently about the Sufis, who were loved by Hindus and Muslims alike.

In his writings about India, Dalrymple shows himself to be a deep admirer of Islamic culture - his specialty of study is, after all, the mediaeval period. When he writes about Hindu achievements too, he is very enthusiastic. But he writes a lot less about Hindu history than about Islamic India, and when discussing the confluence of the two, he broaches the Sufi idea again and again. I wonder if he is being coy here: after all, Sufism is heterodox in Islam and many devout Muslims, tolerant or not, consider it a blot, a heresy.

His latest book, The Last Mughal deals with the end of the Mughal empire, and the 1857 Mutiny. I haven't read it yet, so can't comment at all. But in all the promotional interviews for this tome he likes to trumpet parallels between that year of blood and today's conflict between the West and fundamentalist Islam. As he says:
Yet the lessons of 1857 are very clear. No one likes people of a different faith conquering them, or force-feeding them improving ideas at the point of a bayonet. The British in 1857 discovered what the US and Israel are learning now, that nothing so easily radicalises a people against them, or so undermines the moderate aspect of Islam, as aggressive western intrusion in the east. The histories of Islamic fundamentalism and western imperialism have, after all, long been closely and dangerously intertwined. In a curious but very concrete way, the fundamentalists of all three Abrahamic faiths have always needed each other to reinforce each other's prejudices and hatreds. The venom of one provides the lifeblood of the others.
I guess like a lot of people of left-wing persuasion, he dwells in a sort of idealised world of how things should have been. Truly, one seeks lessons in history in the hope of not repeating the same errors. But if one starts with an idyll of some sort of golden age when all was well, then surely the conclusions drawn can't be totally relied on?


Szerelem said...


Nice I mentioned before I haven't read White Mughals but it's an interesting angle the whole reverse orientalism bit.

I haven't read "The Last Mughal" either but I think he links the Deobandi school with the growth in Islamic fundamentalism there. I don't know how much of this was just for promotion and to make the book relevant for current times. There was a great thread at Chapati Mystery about the book(and Dalrymple responded to some of the comments as well).

About sufism being heterodox - sure, thats the conservative view, but in the face of that it's amusing how hugely widespread it is.

Anonymous said...


Great post! You do realise you are now setting higher and higher standards for yourself to meet ;-)

The most accurate observation about Dalrymple in the post is "..he is very enthusiastic.". He anchored the discussion with Amartya Sen in the RSA (off Strand) on The Argumentative Indian. He was so enthusiastic, he was practically falling off his chair! It was distracting.

It did also manage to change my perspective of his books, although I agree the City of Djinns and the Age of Kali are superb and visceral reads.

It is possible to fall in love with a place/ person so much as to start to fail to see things objectively. I prefer the acerbic wit of those who can still see things as cynics to some extent.

Fëanor said...

Szerelem: thanks for the link to Chapati Mystery. Neat stuff there. Didn't see Dalrymple's responses, though? Do you have a link?

Also, I've seen variously that Sufis comprise about 20% of the Muslim world, but am not sure how this was estimated. Any ideas?

Shefaly: Cheers for the kudos! :) I agree, Dalrymple seems to be the Steve Irwin of the world of history - and equally ever-present. Hyper kind of chap. I missed his discussion of Amartya Sen's book, sadly, and am looking forward to his next engagement in London. And although Channel 4 now allows downloads of its old programs, the ones presented by WD are still unavailable. Quel dommage, hein?

Krishnan said...

Great to read your post on Dalrymple. He has an uncanny gift of producing lucid historical works. Just read his In Xanadu recently and planning to read his other books soon.

Fëanor said...

Krishnan: welcome! You can find many of Dalrymple's published articles at his website, if you are interested.

Space Bar said...

Fëanor, adding my voice to the chorus - great post!

What you don't mention about this change in attitude is, that Dalrymple traces his ancestry to Kirkpatrick (he of the great romance with Khairunnisa. It's the stuff of legend in Hyderabad and a great piece of gossip associated with the writing of White Mughals. All hush hush).

I'm assuming that any historian no matter how skilled, will do a sort of scholarly swoon when they see the threads of history binding them fast to the great players (I'm reminded of Churchill's many-part history of England in which the Marlboroughs play an unusually large part).

But ya - I like the earlier work better also. I gave up on The Last Mughal when I lost my endnotes bookmark.

Anonymous said...

@ Space Bar:

"...when they see the threads of history binding them fast to the great players (I'm reminded of Churchill's many-part history of England in which the Marlboroughs play an unusually large part)..."

Or if they are managing to write history, as Benazir Bhutto's (RIP_ latest book does, you can even invent history and give your ancestors more credit than they deserve and hope that in a world where worshipping the dead is a universal religion, nobody would mind.

Fëanor said...

Space Bar: What ho! Thanks for the note. I didn't know Dalrymple was claiming Kirkpatrick as an ancestor. In this article, he points out that one of his Dalrymple clan tried to keep Kirkpatrick away from Khairunissa. On the other hand, our man WD is so obsessed with desh and his own position of authority that he finds an India-related ancestor for himself or his wife in every nook and corner, eh?

Space Bar said...

Damn it - was I mistaken? I seem to remember him so clearly saying he was related to Kirkpatrick, when he was in I must be mixing the Frasers and the Dalrymples up.


Yikes and zounds.

Szerelem said...

Wow, sb, I didn't know that tid bit!

Feanor: Dalrymple's response here.

I'm not sure about the exact figure of sufis but still it's hard to argue their presence. I'm reading The River of Lost Footsteps right now and they make an appearance there too!!

Fëanor said...

Szerelem: thanks for the link. Classy rebuttal by our man WD, I thought. But Chapati Mystery's comment log seems to be dominated by two or three parties having a long private conversation, eh? :-)

I agree there are Sufis galore, but just wondered how one goes about identifying them, you know. And who did the survey and across what section of the Islamic world...(Also I thought Sufis were Shiite sects, but I think I have seen somewhere references to Sunni Naqshbandis)

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