‘Sikh History from Persian Sources’ edited by J.S Grewal and Irfan Habib

Dabistan - jesuits in Akhbar's court

In November 2018 the Sikhi Book Club discussed ‘Sikh History from Persian Sources’ edited by J.S Grewal and Irfan Habib. The book can be found here.

This is a highly interesting book which contains historical sources from spies, travellers and officials who were responsible for reporting on political and military events within India during the period of time when the Gurus walked the earth. The book contains a long introduction, followed by translations of the persian sources alongwith lengthy footnotes. The members felt that the introduction was difficult to read and possibly would have been better off at the end of the book or in segments after each historical source.

The book clubs members started the discussion by reflecting that this relatively unknown book had clearly required a significant amount of time and effort by the authors in researching and presenting an academic approach to Sikh history. The sources used are now scattered across the Asian continent and are not well known to the general Sikh community. Some of the texts referenced, such as the Dabistan, contain many variations and errors in translated texts. The original (and contemporary) manuscripts are rare and the authors are sometimes unknown. There is, however, a reliance on non-Sikh translators in the publication of this book. This may possibly influence the perspective of the content. However it was excellent that the authors provided full and detailed references for all the sources so that readers know exactly what they are reading.

The Persian sources were written out of need rather than to provide a historical account of events. For example, some officials corresponding with their mughal leaders providing updates on local events, rather than forseeing that their writings would be used to analyse history in future years to come. For this reason it was apparent that the authors are simply describing what they saw or experienced. It’s important to recognise this when debating the content of the writings, some of which may be seen as controversial to a modern Sikh audience. In the times of Guru Nanak to Guru Arjan Dev Ji, it is also possible that Sikhs were mentioned as a passing entity, rather than being seen a true threat to the empire. It was interesting to see that the writings highlighted both positive and negative aspects of Mughal rulers, both in terms of Sikhs working with them when justified and in terms of resistance where necessary. In later sources the language used to describe the Sikhs changes significantly, and Sikhs are perceived as more of a threat.

Some of the issues the members discussed from the Persian sources included:

– The use of Tilaks in Sikh history and current practice in Hazur Sahib

– The methods of torture used by the Mughals on Sikhs to prevent blood flowing unnecessarily as this was considered necessary to prevent haunting by the devil

– Guru Nanak’s views on practising austerities, meat and stories of his meditative practise

– The differing ‘types’ of Sikhs who existed (initiated, non-initiated etc)

– Historical references around the funeral practices at the time of Guru Nanak Dev Ji’s physical death

Noticeably in this book there was no mention of the Amrit ceremony in Anandpur Sahib. Commonly Sikhs are told that there is an eyewitness account of a spy at this time, now kept in Aligarh University. The members had differing views on this, with some highlighting that there own research had shown that this account does not exist.

One of the other important themes running through the book was the fact that the Gurus were well-regarded and known by Muslims and Hindus alike, to the extent that one of the sources suggest that there were some areas of India where people knew the Gurus names but not the names of the Mughal rulers.

Overall, ‘Sikh History from Persian Sources’ is a good starting point for anyone keen to know more about the Sikhs from a historical perspective. It is unfortunate today that authentic Sikh historical sources are few and far between, but this book provides some alternative sources for Sikhs who are interested in this topic.


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