Interview with Ali S. Asani, 2011

Ali Asani is Professor of Indo-Muslim and Islamic Religion and Cultures, Faculty of Arts & Sciences at Harvard University. He is a renowned specialist in the field of Sindhi literary studies. Michel Boivin interviewed him during his passage to Canada for a conference in May 2011.

Could you tell us a few words about your background and training as a scholar?

I received my undergraduate and doctoral (Ph.D.) education at Harvard. My undergraduate (B.A.) degree was in the Comparative Study of Religion with a specialization in Islam and Indo-Muslim literatures, while my doctorate was from the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations where I specialized in the study of Islam and Muslim Cultures in South Asia. In receiving this education, which combined the study of religion with the study of South Asian Muslim literatures and cultures, I was fortunate to have two renowned mentors, Professors Annemarie Schimmel and Wilfred Cantwell-Smith.

How did you come to be interested in Sindhi literature? Did Annemarie Schimmel, who was your academic mentor, play a role?

I developed an interest in Sindhi literature for several reasons. While growing up in Kenya, I was always aware of my family’s ancestral roots in Sindh. My father, in particular, educated me about many aspects of Sindhi culture. I also learnt from him the important cultural and social roles that my grandfather and great-grandfather had played in the history of the Khojah community of Sindh. When I came to Harvard to pursue my studies, my interest in Sindhi was further sparked by Professor Annemarie Schimmel who, as you know, was one of the few western scholars to engage in research on Sindhi literature. The fact that my undergraduate and doctoral theses, both supervised by Professor Schimmel, focused on aspects of the Ismaili ginan literature helped consolidate my interest in Sindhi. Several ginans are regarded as examples of early Sindhi literature. In addition, Khojki, the script used in manuscripts to record the ginans and other literatures of interest to Sindhi Khojahs, is one of several vernacular or local scripts used to write the Sindhi language.

According to you, why is Sindhi literature and culture understudied in the West, in comparison with Punjabi, Gujarati, and also Hindi and Urdu?

There are several reasons for this. Firstly, Sindhi is regarded as a language of limited political and cultural significance since it is mainly spoken in the province of Sindh in Pakistan. In addition, the language is of little significance in India as Sindhis, lacking a state of their own, have found it difficult to maintain the language among younger generations. In contrast, Urdu/Hindi is considered more influential as it functions as a lingua franca in South Asia and elsewhere. Similarly, the importance of Punjabi or Gujarati is sustained by the fact that they are associated with economically and politically significant populations in India and Pakistan as well as among the South Asian diaspora in the West, many of whom have maintained their connection and interest in their literary heritage. Secondly, Sindhi lacks adequately developed material to teach the language to speakers of Western languages. I have yet to come across a textbook that applies modern methods of language pedagogy to teaching Sindhi to English speakers that is accompanied by a sound set of exercises and audio recordings. Thirdly, Sindhi is more difficult to learn than any other North Indian languages. Its fairly complex grammar with its peculiar use of enclitics, its special sounds (especially the implosives) as well as the use of a modified version of the Arabic script are significant hurdles.

You have done extensive work on data written in Khojki script, the secret alphabet of the Ismaili Khojas. What is according to you the relation of Khojki with Sindh? In your work, did you come over Sindhi scripts like Khudawadi, Lohanaki or others?

Khojki was one of several scripts prevalent in Sindh before a modified version of the Arabic script was introduced as the standard script for the language during British colonial times. As its name indicates, it was a script primarily associated with Sindhi Khoja communities. In this sense, the script served as a marker of Khoja identity. As a member of the Landa family of “clipped” alphabets, it is related not only to other vernacular Sindhi scripts (such as Lohanaki and Khudawadi) but also to Gurmukhi, the script used to record the Sikh religious texts. As with Khojki, Gurmukhi also served to foster religious sectarian identity. As a result of the central role that Khojki played in the manuscript tradition recording the ginans of the Khoja communities, I devoted a lot of time and effort in researching the script’s origins and its relationship to other Sindhi alphabets. In the course of my research on Khojki manuscripts, I came across several varieties of Khojki which I suspect is the result of interaction with other script systems.

The leading “Sindhologist” Professor N.B. Baloch passed away in April 2011. What is your appreciation of his legacy? What would give as orientations?

Professor Baloch was clearly one of the most prominent scholars of Sindhi literature and culture. It would not be an exaggeration to say that he was the founder of Sindhi studies. With his demise, Sindhology has lost one of its shining stars.

The life of many Sindhi Sufi poets is shrouded in mystery. For example, you have devoted a study to Qazi Qadan (1453-1551). According to some sources, he was a qazi, but also a Mahdavi. How could we understand what stands like a contradiction?  

The Mahdavi were one of several groups who arose during the end of the first Islamic millennium in response to a widespread belief that a Mahdi (rightly guided one) would emerge to reform Muslim communities and bring them back to the path outlined by the Prophet Muhammad. This belief was shared by both Sunni and Shia groups, so for Qazi Qadan to be a Sunni Qazi and also be a believer in the Mahdi is not a contradiction. Although the Mahdi of Jaunpur, who is commonly regarded as the founder of the Mahdavi movement in South Asia, was persecuted for political reasons, his teachings can be considered in keeping with the religious mores of his time. From a literary point of view, what is significant about the Mahdavis is that they sought to propagate their ideas in vernacular languages. This is of course relevant to the history of Sindhi literature since Qazi Qadan is regarded as one of the early pioneers of Sindhi poetry.

What are the main features of the Sufi poetry of Sindh? What is shared with others like Punjabi and Gujarati? What are the main differences?

The use of folk poetic forms; the mystical interpretations of folk romances; the fusion of poetic and musical traditions; the dominance of the feminine voice and expressions of viraha (love in separation); imagery from agrarian work life (spinning, weaving, grinding grain, etc.); the influence of Sufi, sant and bhakti worldviews – these are some of the main characteristics of classical Sindhi poetry. There are certainly strong similarities with Punjabi literature. I have not studied Gujarati literature in sufficient depth to comment on comparisons with Sindhi.

What are your favorite verses in Sindhi poetry?

My Sindhi favorite verse is from a ginan attributed to Pir Sadr ad-Din (14th c.) that interprets the traditional imagery of a woman spinning cotton as a symbol for an important Islamic mystical practice – the constant recitation of the zikr or remembrance of God. I am drawn to it by the skillful way in which it fuses the material with spiritual significance.

How could we encourage the development of studies devoted to Sindhi literature and Sindhi culture?

The current political and economic climate in Pakistan, and specifically Sindh, is a particularly difficult obstacle to promoting studies of Sindhi culture. I do not see Sindhi studies thriving until there is stability in the province of Sindh. Political and economic stability are essential to promoting interest in Sindhi literature and culture. If European and American universities had more financial resources to devote to the study of Sindhi culture, perhaps through grants or private donations, I think that would also stimulate interest. In this regard, we should perhaps encourage wealthy Sindhis to donate to this cause. Equally critical is making available more research related to Sindh available in the languages of western scholarship. For instance, Professor Schimmel, through her studies and translations of Sindhi mystical poetry, did much to increase awareness about Sindhi mystical traditions among scholars of Islamic Studies. Finally, the study of Sindhi language needs to be made more accessible to those who want to learn the language. For this purpose, the writing of a pedagogically sound textbook providing instruction in the language from an elementary to advanced level with the appropriate audio-visual resources is crucial.

More about Ali Asani

2009 “Satpanth Ismaili Songs to Hazrat Ali and the Imams,” Islam in South Asia in Practice, edited by Barbara Metcalf, Princeton University Press, pp. 48-62.

2003 “At the Crossroads of Indic and Iranian Civilizations: Sindhi Literary Culture,” in Literary Cultures in History. Reconstructions from South Asia, edited by S. Pollock, University of California, pp. 612-646.

2002 Ecstasy and Enlightenment: The Ismaili Devotional Literature of South Asia, London: I.B. Tauris.

1992 The Harvard Collection of Ismaili Literature in Indic Languages: A Descriptive Catalog and Finding Aid, Boston: G.K. Hall/Simon and Schuster.

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