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Dastan-e Amir Hamza

Tra ns l a t e d a nd Int rod uce d b y
Musha rra f Fa rooqi
 
The Simurgh-Feather Guide to the Poetics of
Dastan-e Amir Hamza Sahibqiran
The “Total Book”
J   has proposed the idea of the Total Library. But as we
are of a humble cast, we are perfectly happy to inaugurate a “Total Book.”
It is a book which is the sum of all possible plots of its story. It not only
contains the entire recorded and unrecorded versions of the plot, but all
possible ones as well. Every time a storyteller begins to recite the story, he
unconsciously draws upon one of the plots in the Total Book, and should
he invent something of his own, it too is appropriated by the Total Book
as one of its missing plots. Therefore, no matter where the narrator’s
fancy shall reach, it remains within the confines of that Total Book. And
its unwritten text assumes the shape of a composite animal, whose
component parts are the many written and unwritten versions of the
narrators. This composite animal has other parts too, invisible to the
naked eye: these are the yet unthought-of variations on its plot. The Total
Book is the narrator, but all narrators still do not make the Total Book.
Or, to use an allegory from the Set Theory, it is the infinite super-set; all
versions of its narrators being the sub-sets.
But does such a book actually exist in the universe? Or, is it preposterous to say that the Urdu D≥st≥n-e Amµr ƒamza (henceforward, DAH) is
a Total Book?
These questions could best be addressed once we understand the concept of the Book itself in various traditions.
Starting with this concept of the Book, this essay traces the role of
oral tradition in the conception of the Urdu d≥st≥n, and how the d≥st≥n
carved its identity in Urdu and influenced the course of Urdu prose. A
brief account of the DAH’s history in Urdu is given, and it is argued that
 • T A  U S
after the end of the d≥st≥n-gå’µ (storytelling) tradition, we must redefine
our relationship with the d≥st≥n, before we set up any parameters for its
criticism. Three central features of DAH—Enchantment (πilism), Trickery
( ‘ayy≥rµ) and Warfare (razm)—are outlined with a view to explain some
aspects of the d≥st≥n narrative, which are fundamental to the understanding of the dynamics of the text. It is suggested how these factors combined to make the Urdu DAH an almost interminable tale. How the
traditions of orality, oral narration, and the d≥st≥n-gå (storyteller) himself
influenced the d≥st≥n is also discussed.
Oral Tradition and the Book
Orality was common to all societies, but some developed a special relationship with it in their evolution. The Oral tradition of the pre-Islamic
Arabs was manifested in the popular saying: “ash-shi‘ru dµv≥nu ’l-‘Arab”
(Poetry is the register/record of the days/battles of the Arabs).
This Poetry was not a written word. Dating back to the first century
C.E. it was preserved and later retrieved through the process of oral
transmission called riv≥yat which was an institution in itself, where each
poet had his own r≥vµ (transmitter). Collected after the advent of Islam as
al-Mu‘allaq≥t and al-Mufa¤¤alµy≥t, this Oral poetry acquired canonical status when its organizing principles were defined. Mu√ammad’s contemporaries had received his poetry through oral transmission.1
The Arab Oral tradition continued with Islam, and asserted itself in
Islam’s first book. The Qur’≥n constantly referred to itself as a “book,”
and the “Book of Books,” even in the earlier, Makkan s∑ras,2 at a time
when the Qur’≥n was not compiled as one, and was preserved in the dispersed memory of men. A similar reluctance is noticed in the writing
down of the Prophet Mu√ammad’s traditions ( a√≥dµ¡), though here the
rationale against it was the fear that Mu√ammad’s own utterance might
get mixed up with the Divine Revelation (the Qur’≥n ), resulting in the
same kind of “distortion” (ta√rµf), for which the Holy Book, and the
For much of the above information I am indebted to Professor Muhammad
Umar Memon.
See Ahmed Ali, Al-Qur’an: A Contemporary Translation (Delhi: Oxford
University Press, ), :. Hereafter all references to the Qur’≥n appear in the
M F • 
Muslims along with it, had censured the Jews and Christians. It was
much later that the a√≥dµ¡ were collected, classified, and compiled into
numerous collections, six of which, the ¿i√≥√ Sitta, acquired canonical
status in the eyes of the Muslims. All this underscores the Arab view of
orality as an infallible system of preservation. It was averred:
And to you We have revealed the Book containing the truth, confirming the earlier revelations, and preserving them (from change and corruption). So judge between them by what has been revealed by God, and do
not follow their whims, side-stepping the truth that has reached you… (alQur’≥n, :)
The parallel of the Islamic tradition of orality is found in the traditions of Jewish Oral law, although here it has been defined and articulated
concretely. The Oral law was defended by the rabbis, as its Orality
distinguished it from the written text of the Bible. They contended that if
it were to be written down, the unique and supreme authority of Torah
would be undermined, and it would become just another written text.
The rabbis were also worried that once written, the law would become
static and invested with finality, which would discourage its further
This much is clear from these examples that from its earliest days the
concept of the Book in both Islamic and Judaic traditions was taken not
only to mean a “written” text, but also one graved on the ethereal tablet
of memory. And if in the Judaic tradition this text was seen as alive, as
something destined to grow; in Islam it lent itself to textual analyses:
He has sent down this Book which contains some verses that are categorical and basic to the Book, and others allegorical. But those who are
twisted of mind look for verses metaphorical, seeking dissensions by giving
explanations to them of their own; but none knows their meaning except
God; and those who are steeped in knowledge affirm: “We believe in them
as all of them are from the Lord.” But only those who have wisdom
understand. ( al-Qur’≥n, :)
In India the practice of memorizing the Vedas had long existed. Coupled with the Islamic conventions of orality it produced a society steeped
Cf. Morris Adler, The World of the Talmud (New York: Shocken Books,
), pp. –.
 • T A  U S
in the oral tradition.
The concept of an oral book remained strong in India until the time