Zia-ud-Din Barani’s mid-14th century Tarikh-i Firuzshahi is one of the finest examples of Indo-Persian historiography, a text much abused in modern times by colonial authors, Hindu nationalists and other interested parties. Barani himself is dismissed in secular histories as a bigoted theologian, whose views smacked of communalism. Such an understanding of the author sounds simplistic, even contradictory — dismissing as un-important the work of a fine historian, perceptive political theorist, well-informed personal adviser of Sultan Muhammad Tughlaq, sincere disciple of Chishti Sufi Nizam-ud-Din Auliya, and close friends with poet Amir Khusrau.
Indeed, Barani had nothing to do with theology and he dismissed as impracticable the claims of shari’at as state law, advocated by the Sunnite-ulama. Instead, the author was articulating an elitist power discourse: the supremacy and domination of Islam can only be established in contrast to the inferiority and subordination of non-Islam, since power cannot be enjoyed in a vacuum. Conversion to Islam is not recommended in such an ideology and even Indian converts to Islam were to be treated as inferior people who should not have been converted in the first place.
History is written by the conquerors sometimes on the body of those they decimate, but the conquered people often survive to write their own histories. With a certain degree of democratisation of the Sultanate polity, a large number of Indians were able to break into the system to change the course of history. The gradual political and social change had meant that one did not even need to formally convert to Islam to rise in the Sultanate nobility and bureaucracy; a process initiated as much by the emergence of the Khalji and Tughlaq Sultans as by the presence of the Chishtis with their inclusive cultural practices. These new people were giving a tough time to Delhi’s power elite, previously entrenched in the system. Certainly, Barani demeans himself by condemning them using a variety of invectives: unworthy, ignoble, low-born and bazaar people can have no sense of history.
Barani refashioned himself to start his career as a historian at the age of about 70 years.
Misfit in the changing scheme of things and sidelined from the court of Firuz Shah Tughlaq, Barani refashioned himself to start his career as a historian at the age of about 70 years, realising all along how the times had changed from a strong Ghiyas-ud-Din Balban’s sophisticated violence to consolidate his position to a ruthless Muhammad Tughlaq, who built an empire geographically comparable to those of the Mauryas; it was another matter that the Tughlaq Sultan could not control and govern that empire to anyone’s satisfaction. And, as Barani perceptively put it: the Sultan’s death meant both he and the subject people got rid of each other!
In the introduction to the Tarikh-i Firuzshahi, which is now available in a reliable English translation by Ishtiyaq Ahmad Zilli (Primus Books, New Delhi, 2015), Barani has emphasised the value of acquiring historical knowledge, outlined his method, and stressed what he has written is a matter of truth, arguing his work can be read as a chronicle of the rule of the Sultans, covering nearly a century, or as political analysis of regulations regarding matters of governance, or as counsels and advice for rulers — historical insights as guiding principles in the politics of the present.
According to Barani, historians should be able to rise above the limitations of fear or favour in discussing virtues and merits of those in power, not sweeping under the carpet their failings, demerits and cruelties either. If it was not possible to openly criticise a despot, historians could deploy their linguistic skills in such a way that they were able to speak by means of allusion or euphemism; and, if historians found it altogether impossible to write about a contemporary ruler, they could be excused, but as regards people of the past they were expected to write truth alone. For, any rubbish could be easily trashed and such books were frequently guttered for the paper to be recycled for writing afresh; for Barani, that was often the case with people of low origin peddling falsehood as truth, betraying ambitions for something they did not deserve.
Modern academic institutions and the discipline of history remain awfully elitist, but mercifully, no historian worth his craft can now flaunt his prejudices in such a crude manner, certainly not those who aspire for a place in the history of historiography. Typically known for his aggressive intent, Barani has concluded his introduction with a claim only he could make:
gar be-guyam ke nist dar aalam/masal tarikh-i mun kitab-i digar/chun dar-in ilm aalimi nabud/ke kunad gufta-i maara baawar
[If I say there does not exist in the world/Any other book like the history of mine/Since there is none who is proficient in this subject/Who will believe in what I am saying].