Religious booklets formed a substantial part of the boom in commercial publishing and print culture in nineteenth and early-twentieth north India, cheaply available and widely reprinted by multiple publishers. This essay considers two popular texts that allow us to trace some of the range and of the linguistic and emotional contours of this production. Alif Be alphabet poems gesture towards the earlier history of Muslim oral traditions in north India. Short Wafātnāma verse narratives on the death of the Prophet Muhammad, conversely, were most likely produced by authors connected to Sunni reform movements and sought to focus their devotion on the Prophet alone.
By the late nineteenth century, when printing press was popular across the world. In South Asia, there was increased production and dissemination of Tamil and Malayalam vernacular materials in Arabic script. This intermarriage of local languages with a cosmopolitan script was part of a larger trend of the time, and in South India those were advanced by Arabic-Malayalam and Arabic-Tamil literatures (also referred as Malabari and Arwī respectively). Hundreds of texts printed annually at the prime centres of Islamic printing on both Malabar and Coromandel coasts were circulated among mobile and immobile communities of the region across the Indian Ocean, Pacific and Atlantic littorals. The reach and impact of such vernacular printings are yet to be explored thoroughly, for these materials have been spread across several formal and informal collections and there has not been any systematic attempt to identify or catalogue them. In this article, I focus on uncatalogued Arabic-Malayalam materials at the British Library London on which I have been working on in the last few years. These materials from the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries help us understand the history of the region, religion and printing. After a brief historical overview, I focus on some major features, themes, trends, places, and people in about 150 texts I consulted, and which I discuss in relation to broader histories of Arabic-Malayalam tradition.
Scholarly discussions on Islam in print have focused predominantly on the role of Urdu in the development of North Indian Muslim publics (Dubrow, 2018; Robb, 2020), ʿulama and Islamic jurisprudence (Tareen, 2020) and relations between Islam and colonial modernity (Robinson, 2008; Osella & Osella, 2008) This special issue instead offers fine-grained investigations on technology and labour; print landscapes, networks and actors; subaltern languages; and popular Islam. We critique the idea of an “epistemic rupture” brought about by colonial modernity, providing a more systematic analysis of continuities and changes in Islamic knowledge economy. Examining two centuries of print authored by South Asian Muslims, the articles in the issue provide new ways of thinking about questions of knowledge production, distribution, circulation and reception. The issue broadens the scope of earlier scholarship, examining genres such as cosmology, divination, devotional poems, salacious songs, romances and tales of war in Urdu, Persian, Arabic, dobhāṣī do Bangla, Arabic Malayalam, Sindhi, Balochi and Brahui. The articles show the different ways that pre-colonial practices and cultures of writing and reading persisted in the print landscape, in terms of copying, adaptation, translation and circulation of texts. They inquire into new technologies, labour and networks that evolved, and how it provided fertile ground for both new and traditional forms of religious activities and authorities. The articles present new Muslim publics, geographies, and imaginaries forged through the vernacularisation of Islam, and their relationship to the transnational or global community.
From the 1840s, one of the most visible print genres in the popular ‘Battala’ book trade in Calcutta was the so-called chāpā puthis. Such works, though printed, adhered faithfully to the distinctive layout and typography of the Islamic manuscript tradition which had been current for several centuries in Bengal. They were also among the most lucrative of literary properties, and when the passage of Act XX of 1847 gave copyright protection to books printed in British India., the printers who seized upon the act with the greatest alacrity were those of “chāpā puthis.” The printers of such puthis used the title-page to provide copious metadata, in the process laying bare the often invisible ecology of labor of the print-house. This article will provide a preliminary account of the printing and publishing history of the genre, with its focus on print-house practices, and in particular, the figure of the compositor.
Hell (al-nar, the Fire) and Paradise (al-janna, the Garden), as punishment and reward for Muslims for failing in performing obligatory practices or perfecting them, appeared in popular print in late nineteenth-century Bengal, to coalesce an audience as belonging to the umma. In a reformist attempt to offer Islamic eschatology to the masses, references were based on Qurʾanic and hadith-based traditions, available in Urdu and Bangla and borrowed freely from several sources. The fear of torment in Hell and sensory indulgence in Paradise, articulated by the ʿulamaʾ as part of reformist Islam in Bengal, drew awe towards God and piety towards the Prophet. With the Qurʾan and hadis repertoire in Bangla, sharīʿa-based knowledge was standardized, but ʿulamaʾ who were writing doctrinal treatises for the masses created multiple layers of negotiation between high and popular forms of eschatology by exploring the creative potential of the hereafter.