Book review: Objects of translation by Finbarr Barry Flood

Finbarr Barry Flood, Objects of Translation: Material Culture and Medieval « Hindu-Muslim » Encounter, Princeton-Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2009, 366 p.

Flood’s Objects of Translation: Material Culture and Medieval « Hindu-Muslim » Encounter is according to me, that is to say according to a young historian of pre-modern South Asia and ‘Islamic’ cultures, the book one has to read if interested in the history (that is to say possible comprehension of) and more particularly in the genesis of the Indo-Muslim worlds and cultures, and beyond, if interested in trans-cultural processes, forms, perception, and reflection about them.

The book, which is composed of six thematic chapters dealing both with commercial and political (notably through looting and gifting) trans-cultural contacts through artefacts, coins, dress, paintings, inscriptions, and architectural structures, or literary translations, is an invaluable contribution to Indo-Islamic studies, which widely breaks away from the still traditional division between “Islamic” and “Indianist” or “Indic” fields. The material it considers, presents and analyses, – including pre-Islamic, Ghaznavid and Ghurid Afghanistan –, is extremely vast and rich, and it thus offers a unique and complete synthesis about the first Indo-Islamic artistic productions and their historical significance, from the beginning of the eighth to the early thirteenth centuries.

Flood’s recent work in general has largely participated in the making of a “new” history and new forms of history regarding pre-modern South Asia, giving material culture and complex perception and understanding a more important place. This book is both a broadening and deepening of this approach and reasoning. One can find here for example his study of Ghurid monuments in the Indus Valley, displaying an important Indo-Islamic composition both in their forms and patterns. But it also constitutes, as the author himself declares he is “forging a dialogue between those interested in the relationships between precolonial, colonial, and postcolonial history and historiography”, an important theoretical and reflexive (or epistemological) contribution by knowingly reflecting and using contemporary theories. Rejecting, and arguing against the Manichean and teleological views of history that have been flourishing in Indian historiography under colonial and nationalist banners, the static and narrow conception of pre-modern Ages, and the monolithic perceptions of religions, cultures, and identities, it first recalls the vast mobility and fluidity that existed during the period (Roots or Routes? in the introduction), – which is again highly displayed through the different material productions analysed in the book –, and ends (Conclusion: In and Out of Place) by calling new ways of negotiating the present challenges, notably regarding transregional cultural flows, contingent cosmopolitanisms, subaltern diasporas, and trans-cultural elites, i.e. globalization, or one may say, identities on multiple scales.

Johanna Blayac (EPHE/MIFS, Paris)

Other publications

Piety and Politics in the Early Indian Mosque, Edited volume in the Debates in Indian History and Society series, Oxford University Press India, 2008.

“From the Prophet to Postmodernism? New World Orders and the End of Islamic Art”, In Elizabeth Mansfield, ed., Making Art History: A Changing Discipline and its Institutions, Routledge, 2007.

“Signs of Violence: Colonial Ethnographies and Indo-Islamic Monuments.” in ‘Art and Terror’, a special issue of the Australian and New Zealand Journal of Art, 5.2, 2004.

The Great Mosque of Damascus: Studies on the Makings of an Umayyad Visual Culture, Brill, 2000.

“Ghurid Architecture in the Indus Valley: the Tomb of Shaykh Sadan Shahid,” Ars Orientalis, 36, 2001, 129-166.


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