July 24, 2019 by Amit Dey
In 1990, when I was striving to enter the world of doctoral research, my father, who was an eminent historian, placed three books on my table with the assurance that if I thoroughly read them, I would be on my way to select a research topic for myself. The book that first drew my attention was a classic by Professor Abdul Karim entitled Social History of the Muslims in Bengal. It was accompanied by two other scholarly works, i.e. Bengal Under Akbar and Jahangir: An Introductory Study of Social History, by Tapan Kumar Roy Chaudhuri, and Social and Cultural History of Bengal, by MA Rahim. Eventually, these three seminal works, which were dedicated to the study of medieval Bengal, helped me a lot to select my research topic related to Islam and Islamic mysticism in Bengal. I have no hesitation to admit that an intensive and extensive reading of Professor Karim’s scholarly works solved my personal academic crisis in the sense that ultimately, I was able to identify the area of my research interest. I exposed myself to some of the works of Professor Karim during my undergraduate days at Jadavpur University. However, my rediscovery of Professor Karim as a legendary historian occurred during my research days.
It would be easier to understand a scholar of Professor Karim’s stature if we locate him on a larger canvas. Largely due to the influence of colonial historiography, the pioneering medievalists of the subcontinent revealed a North India-centric or Mughal-centric approach, if not bias, in their writings as if the geo-cultural regions beyond the epicentric Northern India constituted the periphery of our historical engagements relating to South Asia. If we analyse the evolution of history writing in South Asia remembering this perspective, we can hardly miss the representative role played by the academic trio mentioned above. Indeed, Professor Karim marked a shift in history writing from a North India-centric approach to regional history writing and, in our case, that region happened to be Bengal.
In fact, Professor Karim was not merely writing history, he was creating history as his scholarly contributions with its major shift have to be understood in the larger context of the identity formation process of the Bangla-speaking people. Eminent historian Nihar Ranjan Ray, in his monumental work on Bengal and the Bengalees, written in Bangla, confined his focus to ancient Bengal. Since he did not master Persian, he inflicted this constraint upon himself. But Arabic and Persian knowing Abdul Karim traversed the world of Medieval Bengal with ease as that linguistic expertise enabled him to tap the original sources related to that period. However, Nihar Ranjan and Abdul Karim shared one or two things in common in their research engagements.
Firstly, both endeavoured to emancipate historical research from an obsessive commitment to political, administrative or military history and demonstrated the significance of spilling over to social and cultural history of the Bangla-speaking people. Nihar Ranjan and Abdul Karim’s research experiences in Holland and England, respectively, made them aware of this trend which engulfed Europe largely due to the pioneering efforts of the French historians.
Secondly, both of them, along with other greats such as Sir Jadunath Sarkar, Ramesh Chandra Majumdar, Enamul Huq, Jagadish Narayan Sarkar, and Amalendu De, had realised the importance of writing history in vernacular Bangla, in order to reach out to a larger circle of readers beyond the confines of classrooms or seminar rooms of leading academic institutions. Indeed, historical consciousness should not be monopolised by a few academic institutions. Thus, Abdul Karim and the above-mentioned historians did not merely get involved in the act of history writing in South Asia, but also became an integral part of a historical movement aimed at communicating with a larger audience. A sense of history is essential for the sustenance of vibrant democracies, dynamic economies and pluralistic societies.
The third major contribution of Professor Karim was to challenge the colonial periodisation of South Asian history. To provide an ideological base for the divide-and-rule policy, the British administrator cum Indologists divided Indian history into three distinct periods, i.e. Ancient or Hindu golden age, Medieval or Muslim dark age, and Modern or British period. Many scholars such as Sir Jadunath, Jagadish Narayan Sarkar, Habibullah, MR Tarafdar, NK Bhattasali, Tapan Roy Chaudhuri, Abdul Karim and some others implicitly challenged such colonial historiographical stance by carrying out research on topics related to medieval South Asia.
Fourthly, there is a saying that historians are notorious for their confinement to the libraries and archives and anthropologists are notorious for their field works. Abdul Karim was one of the pioneers amongst South Asian historians who combined both. His intensive and extensive fieldworks culminated in the publication of his magnum opus, entitled Corpus of The Arabic and Persian Inscriptions of Bengal.
Fifthly, he belonged to that rare brand of historians who could successfully reconcile academic and administrative responsibilities. This rare quality he demonstrated during his tenure as the Vice-Chancellor of Chittagong University where he had to negotiate with various high commissions, particularly German and British, to elevate the upcoming university in the international academic map. Professor Karim’s liberal, spiritual and human outlook is manifested in the brilliant chapter on the sufis in his famous book with which we began this essay. His faith in cultural pluralism acquired a new dimension when he entered into a significant family tie with “Banglar Rumi” Syed Ahmedul Huq.
It would be intriguing to wind up by citing an event in the research career of Professor Shahnawaz of Jahangirnagar University. During his doctoral research, he appeared before his teacher Professor Amalendu De of Jadavpur University with his chapter on numismatic sources and mentioned that in spite of his busy schedule, Professor Karim had gone through that chapter and expressed his satisfaction. Gladly accepting that chapter, Professor De said that Professor Shahnawaz got the approval of the highest authority on the subject. Today, through this humble essay, late Professor De’s son is also paying his deep respect to the insightful prolificity of Professor Abdul Karim.
Dr Amit Dey is Professor of History, University of Calcutta.