Reclaiming Karbala: Nation, Islam and Literature of the Bengali Muslims (Routledge, 2023)

The struggle of Muslims in Bengal to create an identity-based (jātīẏa) literature is generally lost in the nationalist historiography of the nineteenth and twentieth century India. In the existing studies, the creation of the Bengali Muslim public sphere is always fused into the dynamics of nation-making and the narrative of the Partition of India along communal lines during India’s independence from the British rule in 1947. Analysing an extensive range of texts and publications across multiple genres, formats and literary lineages, and without narrowing down the internally diverse forms of nationalistic sensibilities into a singular journey of nation-making, The new book by Epsita Halder, former fellow of the “Religion and Urbanity” group, is titled Reclaiming Karbala: Nation, Islam and Literature of the Bengali Muslims (2023) studies the emergence and formation of a viable Muslim identity in Bengal over the late-19th century through the 1940s. Beginning with an explanation of significance of the martyrdom of Hazrat Muhammad’s grandson Husayn in the battle of Karbala (680 CE) for the Muslims, this book explores how this particular historical episode was recurrently reclaimed and reinterpreted by the Bangla-speaking ulama and Muslim literati to define what it meant to be Muslim in colonial Bengal. Through the study of multiple literary and ideological exploits of the battle of Karbala, Reclaiming Karbala explored how the Bengali Muslims’ attempts to claim linguistic identity and envisage literary modernity were informed by the waves of Islamic reform and intra-Islamic struggles that marked both Bengaliness and Muslimness in the region.

The book is an intervention into the literature on regional Islam in Bengal, offering a complex perspective on the polemic on religion and literature in the formation of a jātīẏa Bengali Muslim identity in a multilingual context of Arabic, Persian, Urdu, Bangla and sometimes English. By placing this polemic in the context of intra-Islamic reformist conflicts, the book shows how all these rival Sunni reformist groups unanimously negated the Karbala-centric commemorative ritual of Muharram and Shī‘ī intercessory piety to secure a pro-Caliphate sensibility as the core value of the Bengali Muslim public sphere, which they hegemonically qualified as the jātīẏa  ethos of the Muslims.

Maktul Hosen (1646) by Muhammad Khan, Folio no. 347, manuscript no. 555, Abdul Karim Sahitya Bisharad Collection, Dhaka University

Since sixteenth century Bengal, literary translation and transcreation of Arabic-Persian sources started to create persuasive narratives “to put doctrine to real life” by the Sufis and other literary agents.[1] As literary networks expanded, along with Islamic hagiography, legend and qiṣṣa, a Karbala-centric devotion became a part of Middle Bangla literature, percolating a deep affect towards Prophet Muhammad and his family. Later, with the advent of organised Islamic reform in early nineteenth century Bengal, historical situations associated with the battle of Karbala as the most viable literary tropes were strategically restaged to resolve the crisis in the Early Caliphate and propose new forms of scriptural ethical-moral templates for the Bengali Muslims to secure the community as the modern ummah of Prophet Muhammad. This book locates the generic, religious, linguistic nuances related to such endeavours by the ulama and the literati within the nationalistic political and modernist literary impulses of the Bengal region. To that end, Reclaiming Karbala explores Bengal as a “contact nebula”[2] that stands for an arena of the reception of multilingual literary circulations across regions facilitated by the print culture since the mid-nineteenth century.

Fig 3.Title page Hajarat Emām Hasan Hosener Jībanī by Maulavi Azhar Ali, 1932, Rare Book Section, National Library, India

As the Bengali Muslims created literary constellations they called the jātīẏa literature by “moving out laterally” along the transterritorial pan-Islamic network and connecting vertically to the articulations of Islamic past(s) across time and space, this study moves beyond the Andersonian idea of the imagined community embedded in the formative geo-political stability of the nation and national sensibilities. The Bengali Muslim collective, at many historical conjunctures, merged with the political consciousness of nation-making, especially after the Khilafat movement (1919–24). Yet the multiple forms and articulations of community consciousness by the Bengali Muslims could never be fused into a definitive, closed understanding of either nationalism or the nation. This book explores how the Bengali Muslim modernist consciousness, instead, is productively caught in the tripartite pulls of the transterritorial, national and the regional forms of belongings and identification. Literary tropes and generic formulations were adopted freely from the vast repertoire of literary and scriptural expressions across the Islamicate worlds — transterritorial or supra-regional. This study teases out the polemical nature of the jātīẏa literature of the Bengali Muslims which was formed through the highly complex creative adaptations of Brahmo and Hindu literary repertoires, and by simultaneously critically distancing from the Hindu nationalist thematic and sometimes generic arrangements. It analyses how the claims of historicity and validation of poetic freedom in jātīẏa literature were achieved by attesting them with Islamic scriptural authenticity and historical factuality and how these claims were also framed argumentatively against Orientalist, Christian missionary, colonial administrative and Hindu nationalist discourses.

Fig. 3 Cover Page Dāstān Śahide Kārbālā (1929) by Muhammad Eshak Uddin, Rare Books Section, Bangla Academy Dhaka

Reclaiming Karbala proposes a timely critique of the recent religious chauvinism strengthening Islamophobia and pushing communal fissures in the Indian subcontinent beyond repair. It offers to read the interstitial spaces between various boundaries and their comingling within the Bengali public sphere — cultural, reformist, linguistic and generic — in more nuanced ways. It also affirms the simultaneous presence of multiple micro public spheres within one crisscrossing one another. Secondly, by re-energising the capacity of the region as an analytical category and by looking at it as the multilingual local[3], this book offers another reading of the world and another formulation of world literature. Contradicting the universal categories and the idea of global diffusion of texts embedded in the criteria of world literature, Reclaiming Karbala proposes a fresh, located approach to read the multilingual local[4] which grows via other channels of literary circulation, facilitated by local agents who offer other values of modernity.


[1] Tony K Stewart, “In Search of Equivalence: Conceiving Muslim-Hindu Encounter through Translation Theory,” History of Religions 40, no. 3 (Feb. 2001): 261.

[2] Karen Laura Thornber, Empire of the Texts in Motion: Chinese, Korean, Taiwanese Transculturations of Japanese Literature (Cambridge, Massachusetts & London: Harvard University Press, 2009).

[3] Francesca Orsini, “The multilingual local in world literature,” Comparative Literature 67, no. 4 (2015): 345-‐374.

[4] Karina Laachir et al, “Multilingual Locals and Significant Geographies: For a Ground-up and Located Approach to World Literature,” Modern Languages Open 19, no. 1 (2018): 1–8.



Cite this blog post
urbrel (2024, April 19). Reclaiming Karbala: Nation, Islam and Literature of the Bengali Muslims (Routledge, 2023). Religion and Urbanity: Reciprocal Formations. Retrieved May 29, 2024, from https://doi.org/10.58079/w8tz

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