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Interfaith Dialogue ( 9 Oct 2021, NewAgeIslam.Com)

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Translating Muhammad: The Nabivamsha of Syed Sultan

By Arshad Alam, New Age Islam

9 October 2021

The Epic Needs To Widely Read In These Times of Religious Antagonism

Main Points

1.    Syed Sultan introduced Islam to a largely non-Muslim audience through his epic Nabivamsha.

2.    It was one of the first texts in Bengal to introduce the Islamic theory of cosmology in vernacular Bengali.

3.    Syed Sultan argues that Muhammad was created from a part of God Himself, thus negating the separation between the creator and the created.


Islamic rule came to Bengal with the Afghan expansion in the 14th century, although Muslims had a much older presence there due to trade and commerce. While the geographies of Delhi Sultanate fluctuated with time, Muslim kingdoms in Bengal more or less continued without too many glitches. Flanked by Hindu kingdoms and the Buddhist Arakan state, Muslims in Bengal sought to make sense of multiple religious cosmologies which they inhabited. In the process, they also introduced Islam to a largely non-Muslim audience in very creative and imaginative ways. One such attempt was by Syed Sultan, probably a native of Chittagong, who lived in the late 16th-early 17th century. It is important to note that the region during his time was governed by the Therevada Buddhist kings of Arakan, which is in present day Myanmar.

In the early 17th century, Syed Sultan composed the Nabivamsha (Lineage of the Prophet), an epic of 17,396 couplets that narrates the life of Muhammad, the prophet of Islam. By this time, the Islamic presence in this region was already four centuries old. The epic is one of the first texts in the region to introduce the Islamic theory of cosmology in vernacular Bengali. The important question for Syed Sultan was to how to make the Prophet of Islam intelligible to people of different faith traditions as well as to those Muslims who were new converts. Nabivamsha therefore attempts to introduce Islam and Muhammad to these people from within a Hindu worldview. Scholars who have written on the presence and expansion of Islam in Bengal like Asim Roy have explained this exercise as an example of ‘syncretism’ but as we shall see later, it was more complicated.

Having taken the form of Muhammad--- his own Avatara---

Niranjana manifests his own portion (Amsa) to propagate himself.

From time’s beginning to its end, the Creator

Shall create messengers (Paighambar) to rightly guide all peoples.

In the above stanza, Syed Sultan refers to God as Niranjana, which is the same word by which He is addressed in many Hindu texts, particularly of the Vaishnavites. For Sultan, the first creation of this God is Muhammad and therefore predates all other prophets sent by Him. But that’s not all. Sultan seems to be arguing that Muhammad is not just a prophet but the very manifestation of God Himself which is similar to the Hindu notion of re-incarnation. Two related ideas flow from such a characterization of Muhammad. First, he is said to be the ‘first cause’ in the sense that God created this light (Nur) from his own self (Amsa). Thus, everything else was created after the Nur e Muhammad. In this sense, Syed Sultan was able to argue that Muhammad is the first and the last of the prophets as he was sent again later by God to perfect the message. All other prophets came after him, and all of them essentially carried the same message. Sultan argues that Krishna, Rama, etc. were all prophets sent by the same Niranjana but they all came after Muhammad who was the first of the creation. One can certainly draw the conclusion that Syed Sultan was trying some kind of a religious ecumenism by underlining that Hinduism and Islam come from the same divine source. But there can be another reading also: Since Muhammad is the first and last of the prophets, it follows that all other religions and their followers should now return to this original religion.    

Many Muslims are sure to have deep anxieties over such a characterization of the prophet. After all, re-incarnation is a purely Hindu concept. What is more, Sultan is arguing that Muhammad was created from a part of God Himself thus negating the separation between the creator and the created. Some Muslims might argue that such characterization compromises the fundamental principle of monotheism (Tawheed) in Islam. But this anxiety over the Prophet being indistinguishable from the Creator Herself is just one of the many forms of Islamic articulation. Medieval Muslim scholars have made use of such tropes for long without being labelled un-Islamic. In order to better appreciate the epistemological lineage of Syed Sultan, we need to dwell on the concept of Nur e Muhammad, one of the central ideas in his epic.

Nur e Muhammad has been used as an epithet by many early Muslims to denote the pre-existent essence of the Prophet. This pre-existent light of Muhammad passes from Adam through the line of prophets down to the historical Muhammad. Thus, the motif of light has been widely associated with the figure of Muhammad by early Islamic scholars. The eight-century theologian, Muqatil, interpreted the Quranic Surat al Nur as referring to the Prophet. This belief in the pre-existence of the light of Muhammad can also be found in the writings of al-Tustari, Hallaj and later elaborated by Ibn Arabi. For Ibn Arabi, the Nur e Muhammad was an intermediary principle of light and love that mediates between the formless one (Nirankara) and the world of form, between the uncreated one and the created world. In Ibn Arabi, Muhammad become the Barzakh, the ‘isthmus between the necessary and contingent existence.’

The relevance of Syed Sultan’s Nabivamsha in contemporary India cannot be underestimated. Today, we have a situation where to be a Muslim is to differentiate ourselves from other faith traditions. This produces an ethnocentric worldview wherein Islam becomes a call for religious exclusivism and supremacy. Moreover, the dominant Islamic view postulates a radical separation between the creator and the created. However, in drawing upon early Islamic writings of Wahdat al Wujud (unity of being), Muslims like Syed Sultan prove that there are multiple interpretive traditions within Islam, wherein the world and its inhabitants become the reflection of the only essence there is: that of the supreme creator. It is time to recover such writings and present them to a wider Muslim audience so that pluralism can become one of the cherished principles in Islam.


Arshad Alam is a columnist.   


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