December issue 2006

By | Arts & Culture | Books | People | Q & A | Published 18 years ago

“Several commentators in the western media who write on Islam know little about it”

– William Dalrymple

On his recent trip to Pakistan, this time for the launch of his latest book, The Last Mughal — once again courtesy The Citizens Foundation — William Dalrymple made himself available for a brief question and answer session, in the midst of signing books for buyers, and answering telephone calls. Excerpts from the interview…

Q: Have you thought of making a documentary on The Last Mughal? It would be extremely appropriate, given the intolerant times we live in today, and the erstwhile, friendly relations between the Hindus and Muslims of India, resulting in their even going into ‘jihad’ together, that you have described.

A: There is a documentary partially based on the book, which covers ‘jihad’ in history and how far jihad was a part of the uprising in 1857. For instance, the sepoys who were part of the mutiny were 80 per cent upper caste Hindus; the cavalry which was much smaller in number, comprised largely Muslims. But, throughout 1857, there were also freelance jihadis — ordinary Muslim civilians who picked up a sword against the British — so that near the end there were some 25000 ‘jihadis’ as estimated by the British Intelligence.

Q: I feel your book traces the current wave of terrorism and religious fanaticism back to the doorstep of colonial India and the bigotry exhibited by the British. Do you agree?

A: Well, I didn’t make it quite that black and white. What I feel is that there was a situation where there was tolerance on all sides in the eighteenth century — when there were Christians, Hindus and Sufi-minded Muslims living side-by-side — and that gave way to a period in early nineteenth century when you have Evangelical Christians facing increasingly militant Islam. In Delhi, militant Islam came out of the school of Shah Walliullah and Shah Abdul Aziz who were, if you like, theological grandparents of the Deobandis and rejected some of the more plural Indo-Islamic-Hindu-Muslim ways of living that had developed in the country. So, yes, I do feel that it was the increasing western aggression that resulted in the confrontation that took place, and which is also what you see in the present day.

Q: Bahadur Shah Zafar probably owes a debt of gratitude to you for, prior to The Last Mughal, I don’t think he has been projected in a positive light at all by historians. He was always made out to be a very weak ruler. How is it that you unearthed so much hitherto unknown information about him?

A: What could an 82-year-old do, anyway? If Alexander the Great had been 82 and in that situation, he wouldn’t have been able to do much, either. But, I don’t want to underplay the research that we put in to gather the documentation we did. We discovered this incredible treasure trove — a catalogue called Mutiny Papers — which had barely been touched and of which there were no records. Mahmoud and I spent four years going through at least two thousand documents from the catalogue and although there are still huge amounts that we haven’t touched, this research has allowed a wholesale reevaluation of what it was like to be in Delhi then.

Q: You’ve been very vociferous in your views about Islamophobia. Have you borne the major brunt of the flak from the western world because of it?

A: Certainly, with the conflict between Bin Laden and America and the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, the turn of debate about Islam has become more vociferous, and has triggered different reactions. But I can say happily that I have given as good as I got. What I find annoying is that a lot of commentators in the western media who write on Islam know very little about it.

Q: You have mentioned in your book that 99 per cent of the havelis in India have been demolished. Considering that you feel so strongly about this, do you plan to do something about it?

A: My specialty is to write and I don’t wish to become an activist.

The writer is a freelance journalist based in Karachi. She also works at Hum television.