The Colloquy between Muhammad and Saytān: The 18th century Bangla Iblichnāmā of Garībullā (HT17)

Location: Fellows’ Dining Room, Hilda Besse Building at St Antony’s College
Speaker: Professor Tony K. Stewart
Date: January 31, 2017
Time: 2.00-3.30

In 1287 bs [=1879/80 ce] a short Bangla work was published in Calcutta under the title of Iblichnāmār punthi by the highly productive scholar Garībullā, who had composed the text about a century earlier. This somewhat unusual text is a colloquy between the Prophet Muhammad and the fallen Iblich (Ar. Iblīs), also called Saytān. The bulk of this fictional text is an interrogation of Iblich regarding the nature of his followers and their actions. The text is prefaced in its opening verses with a somewhat uneasy statement about the nature of the book and whether it was even appropriate to compose such a text it in the vernacular Bangla, a move that immediately draws attention to the language of the text itself and its intended audience. The opening section moves from one language conundrum to another until the attentive reader begins to realize that the fact one is reading the text in Bangla suggests that question and those that followed were actually moot, a set up for something else. Soon, the logic of the argument makes clear that such a conversation between the always untruthful Iblich and the always truthful Muhammad could only happen in a fiction—and it is perfectly fine to write fiction in Bangla. This move to fiction immediately alters the approach of the reader, who is rewarded with humorous, often naughty descriptions of the depraved and licentious acts of Saytān’s lackeys, parodies of the standard ’aḥādīth literatures regarding proper conduct—everything a good practicing Muslim is not! This fictional inversion of all that is good and proper titillates the reader in its mad escape from the Bakhtinian monologic of theology, history, and law that governs the discourse of the conservative Sunni (Hanbalite) mainstream. It is the exaggerated negative image of the law as seen from the imagined squalid underbelly of Bengali society.

(This seminar is jointly sponsored by the Oxford Centre for Hindu Studies, the Asian Studies Centre at St. Anthony’s College, and the History Faculty.)

Prof. Tony K. Stewart specializes in the literatures and religions of the Bangla-speaking world, with a special emphasis on the early modern period. His most recent monograph, The Final Word: the Caitanya Caritāmṛta and the Grammar of Religious Tradition (Oxford, 2010), culminated a decades-long study of the Gauḍīya Vaiṣṇava hagiographical tradition that included translating with Edward C. Dimock, Jr., The Caitanya Caritāmṛta of Kṛṣṇadāsa Kavirāja, Harvard Oriental Series no. 56 (Harvard, 1999). From the literatures of the Muslim–Hindu mythic figure, Satya Pīr, he published Fabulous Females and Peerless Pīrs: Tales of Mad Adventure in Old Bengal (Oxford, 2004) and is currently working on a monograph on the popular Bangla romance literatures of the pīrs. With prominent American poet Chase Twichell, he has published the first ever translations of Rabindranath Tagore’s pseudonymous Bhānusiṃha poetry titled The Lover of God (Copper Canyon, 2003). Stewart currently holds the Gertrude Conaway Vanderbilt Chair in Humanities and serves as a Professor and Chair of the Department of Religious Studies at Vanderbilt University.