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Translating the ‘Other’: Early-Modern Muslim Understandings of Hinduism


This essay examines the theme of inter-religious translation in the context of early modern India. More specifically, it considers the prominent 18th century Sufi master and scholar Mirzā Maẓhar Jān-i Jānān's (d.1781) translation of Hindu thought and practice as reflected in his Persian letters on this subject. Through a close reading of the content and context of his translation project, I show that while according the Hindu ‘other’ remarkable doctrinal hospitality, Jān-i Jānān's view of translation was firmly tethered to an imperial Muslim political theology committed to upholding the exceptionality of Muslim normative authority. Interrogating his negotiation of hospitality and exceptionality and the notions of time that undergirded that negotiation occupies much of this essay. I also explore ways in which Jān-i Jānān's translation of Hinduism might engage ongoing scholarly conversations regarding the rupture of colonial modernity in the discursive career of religion in South Asia. In the Euro-American study of religion, many scholars have shown the intimacy of modern secular power and the reconfiguration of religion as a universally translatable category. But what conceptual and historiographical gains might one derive by shifting the camera of analysis from the colonial reification of religion to the inter-religious translation efforts of a late 18th century thinker like Jān-i Jānān who wrote at the cusp of colonial modernity? This question hovers over the problem-space of this essay.

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1 Asad Talal, Genealogies of Religion: Discipline and Reasons of Power in Christianity and Islam (Baltimore, 1993).

2 For perhaps the most convincing and thorough articulation of this argument, see Mandair Arvind, Religion and the Specter of the West: Sikhism, India, Postcoloniality, and the Politics of Translation (New York, 2009).

3 I use the term ‘Hinduism’ here, as I do throughout this article when describing Jān-i Jānān's views, rather reluctantly, and primarily for heuristic purposes. As I discuss later, the positing in the eighteenth century of a clearly demarcated world religion called ‘Hinduism’ involves a fair number of problems and ambiguities.

4 For instance, Aziz Ahmad, I. H. Qureshi, I. M. Ikram and to a certain extent Fazlur Rahman are notable members of this camp. This list is, of course, by no means exhaustive.

5 Imtiaz Ahmad, Sarvelli Gopal and Mushirul Hassan are all good examples.

6 See, for instance, the collection of essays in Gopal Sarvelli, Anatomy of a Confrontation: The Babri Masjid-Ramjanmabhumi Issue (New Delhi, 1991).

7 James Laine, unpublished paper on file with author. The examples of scholars cited here are my own.

8 For instance, see Lawrence Bruce and Gilmartin David, Beyond Turk and Hindu: Rethinking Religious Identities in Islamicate South Asia (Gainesville, 2000) and Laine James., Shivaji: Hindu King in Islamic India (Oxford, 2003).

9 Jān-i Jānān was Mirzā Maẓhar's poetic epithet. But since he is most well known as Jān-i Jānān, I use this name throughout this article.

10 Friedmann Yohanan, “Muslim views of Indian religions”, Journal of the American Oriental Society, VC, (April–June 1975), pp. 214221 .

11 Warren Fusfeld, “The Shaping of Sufi Leadership in Delhi: The Naqshbandiyya Mujaddidiya, 1750–1920” (University of Pennsylvania Dissertation, 1981).

12 Dahnhardt Thomas, Change and Continuity in Indian Sufism (New Delhi, 2002).

13 Dihlavī Shāh Ghulām ‘Alī and Mujaddadī Muḥammad Iqbāl, Maqāmāt-i Maẓharī: Aḥvāl o Malfūẓāt o Maktūbāt-i Ḥazrat Mirzā Maẓhar Jān-i Jānān Shahīd, (Lahore, 2001).

14 For an excellent explication of this problem, see Green Nile, Sufism: A Global History (West Sussex, 2002).

15 Anjum Khāliq (ed.) Maktūbāt-i Mirzā Maẓhar Jān-i Jānān Shahīd: ma‘ Savāniḥ ‘Umrī (Lahore, 1997), p. 240.

16 Nizami K. A., Shāh Walī Allah ke Siyāsī Maktūbāt (Delhi, 1969), p. 25 .

17 Ibid ., Volume 2, p. 91.

18 Dihlavī and Mujaddidī, Maqāmāt, pp. 78–85.

19 Ibid., p.86.

20 Anjum, Maktūbāt-i Mirzā, (Lahore, 1997).

21 Carl Ernst, "Muslim studies of Hinduism? A reconsideration of Arabic and Persian translations from Indian Languages’, Iranian Studies forthcoming, p. 3.

22 Embree Ainslee, Alberuni's India (New York, 1971), pp. 1719 .

23 Ibid ., p. 24.

24 Ibid .

25 Ibid., p. 27.

26 Ibid ., p.111.

27 Ibid .

28 Lawrence Bruce, “Al-Bīrūnī and Islamic mysticism”, Hamdard Islamicus, I, 1, (1978), p. 55 .

29 Ibid ., p. 56.

30 Shikoh Dārā, Majma‘ al-bahrayn, (ed.) Gilani Muḥammad Younis Shah (Abbotabad, 1988), p. 141 .

31 Ibid .

32 Munis Faruqui, ‘The Case of Dara Shokoh’. Lecture delivered at T2F Karachi, Pakistan, accessed on 8 August 2016 at

33 Ernst Carl, ‘Muslim interpreters of yoga’, in Yoga: The Art of Transformation, (ed.) Diamond Deborah (Washington DC, 2013), pp. 5968 .

34 Fuerst Ilyse Morgenstein, ‘A Muslim Bhagavadgita: ‘Abd al-Rahman Chishti's interpretive translation and its implications’, Journal of South Asian Religious History, I, (2015), pp. 129 .

35 Truschke Audrey, Culture of Encounters: Sanskrit at the Mughal Court (New York, 2016). Another work that has argued for the dynamism of such cross-religious and inter-linguistic encounters is Shankar Nair's excellent recent dissertation “Philosophy in any Language: Interaction between Arabic, Persian, and Sanskrit Intellectual Cultures in Mughal South Asia ”(Harvard University Dissertation, 2014).

36 Ernst, ‘Muslim interpreters’, p. 66.

37 Stewart Tony, ‘In search of equivalence: conceiving Muslim–Hindu encounter through translation theory’, History of Religions, I, 3 (Feb, 2001), p. 263 .

38 Ibid ., pp. 260–287.

39 The question of the ‘other's’ salvation has remained a much contested and debated problem throughout Muslim intellectual history that has occupied the imagination of several major scholars and espoused a variety of responses and meditations. For more on that topic, see Khalil Mohammad, Islam and the Fate of Others: The Salvation Question (New York, 2012).

40 Dahnhardt Thomas, Change and Continuity in Indian Sufism (New Delhi, 2002), pp. 1011 .

41 For purposes of this article, I have relied on Jān-i Jānān's original letter in Persian that appears in Qamar ul-Dīn Murādābādī’s 1891 collection of Jān-i Jānān's discourses, Kalimāt-i Ṭayyibāt. The Urdu translation of this letter is available in Maqāmāt-i Maẓharī that was compiled by Shāh Ghulām ‘Alī Dihlavī and edited and translated by Muḥammad Iqbāl Mujaddidī. I have elsewhere translated (with a commentary) the Urdu translation; see Tareen SherAli, “The perils and possibilities of inter-religious translation: Mirza Mazhar Jan-i Janan on the Hindus”, Sagar: A South Asia Research Journal, XXI, (May 2014), pp. 4351 .

42 Murādābādī Qamar ul-Dīn (ed.) Kalimāt-i Ṭayyibāt (Murādābād, 1891), p. 27 .

43 Persian for Vedas.

44 Murādābādī, Kalimāt-i Ṭayyibāt, pp. 27–28.

45 Ibid .

46 Ibid ., p. 28.

47 Ibid .

48 Ibid .

49 Ibid .

50 Ibid .

51 Ibid .

52 Qur'an 35:24; Muhammad Asad translation.

53 Qur'an 10:47. Muhammad Asad translation.

54 Murādābādī, Kalimāt-i Ṭayyibāt, p. 28.

55 Ibid .

56 Qur'an, 40:78.

57 Murādābādī, Kalimāt-i Ṭayyibāt, p. 28.

58 Ibid ., p. 29

59 Ibid .

60 Ibid . Literally meaning ‘like a stick’, the practice of dand'vat represents a Hindu salutation involving falling, lying prostrate or bowing before a person or an entity. It usually signifies the recognition of moral authority in a situation that demands the expression of such respect.

61 Ibid .

62 See Buehler Arthur, Sufi Heirs of the Prophet: The Indian Naqshbandiyya and the Rise of the Mediating Sufi Shaykh (Columbia, SC, 1998.)

63 Friedmann Yohanan, “Muslim views of Indian religions”, Journal of the American Oriental Society, XC, (April–June 1975), p. 221 .

64 Ibid .

65 Dihlavī and Mujaddidī, Maqāmāt, pp. 101 and 127.

66 See for instance Mandair Arvind, Religion and the Specter of the West: Sikhism, India, Postcoloniality and the Politics of Translation (New York, 2009); Dalmia Vasudha, The Nationalization of Hindu Traditions: Bhāratendu Hariśchandra and Nineteenth-Century Banaras (Oxford, 1997); Frykenberg RobertConstructions of Hinduism at the Nexus of History and Religion,” Journal of Interdisciplinary History, XXIII: 3 (Winter 1993), pp. 523550 ; Oberoi Harjot, The Construction of Religious Boundaries: Culture, Identity, and Diversity in the Sikh Tradition (Chicago, 1994).

67 See for instance Nicholson Andrew, Unifying Hinduism: Philosophy and Identity in Indian Intellectual History (New York, 2010), Pennington Brian, Was Hinduism Invented? Britons, Indians, and the Colonial Construction of Religion (New York, Oxford, 2004) Lorenzen David, “Who Invented Hinduism?”, Comparative Studies in Society and History, Vol. 41, No. 4 (October 1999), pp. 630659 .

68 Carl Ernst, ‘Muslim studies of Hinduism’, p.1. For a fuller view on Ernst's formidable research on this topic, see the collection of essays in Ernst Carl, Refractions of Islam in India: Situating Sufism and Yoga (New Delhi, 2016).

69 Ibid .

70 Viswanathan Gauri, “Colonialism and the construction of Hinduism”, in Blackwell Companion to Hinduism, (ed.) Flood Gavin (Oxford, 2003), p. 38 .

71 Mandair Arvind, Religion and the Specter of the West: Sikhism, India, Postcoloniality, and the Politics of Translation (New York, 2009), pp. 45106 .

72 Ibid .

73 Ibid., pp. 175–240.

74 Venuti Lawrence, The Translator's Invisibility: A History of Translation (London and New York, 1995).

75 Quoted in Ibid ., p.41.

76 Quoted in Friedrich Hugo, “On the art of translation” in Schulte Rainer and Biguenet John (eds), Theories of Translation: An Anthology of Essays from Dryden to Derrida (Chicago and London, 1992), pp. 1213 .

77 Ibid., p.14.

78 Quoted in Ibid .

79 I would like to thank Carl Ernst, Ebrahim Moosa, Bruce Lawrence, James Laine, Barton Scott and Hoda Yousef, also the peer reviewers for comments on this essay. I also benefited from participation in the 2013 National Endowment for Humanities Institute on Translation in the Humanities at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign: I thank the institute organisers Chris Higgins, Elizabeth McCoy and all participants for their stimulating conversations. I also presented different versions of this essay at the American Academy of Religion Meeting, Annual South Asia Conference. I thank all respondents and audience members at these venues for their feedback and comments.

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Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society
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