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the Complete Review
the complete review - biography

The History of Akbar
Volume 1


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To purchase The History of Akbar

Title: The History of Akbar
Author: Abu'l-Fazl
Genre: Biography
Written: 1590s (Eng. 2015)
Length: 586 pages
Original in: Persian
Availability: The History of Akbar (I) - US
The History of Akbar (I) - UK
The History of Akbar (I) - Canada
The History of Akbar (I) - India
  • Volume 1
  • Persian title: اكبر نامه
  • Translated and edited by Wheeler M. Thackston
  • Previously translated by Henry Beveridge as The Akbar Nāmā of Abu-L-Fazl (3 vols.; 1902-39)
  • This is a bilingual edition, with the original Persian text printed facing the English

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Our Assessment:

(-) : almost preposterously effusive, but quite fascinating

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Bulletin of the SOAS . 2/2016 Derryl N. MacLean
The NY Rev. of Books . 24/9/2015 Roberto Calasso
Wall St. Journal . 8/1/2022 Tunku Varadarajan

  From the Reviews:
  • "Comparing the Thackston Akbarnama with the Beveridge translation, a reader will be inclined to conclude that, while the former brings out the meaning of the text much better, the latter wins the contest on the level of melody. Mr. Thackston’s English is modern and, in places, austere, while Beveridge employs the language and rhythms of his own Victorian upbringing. Given that Akbar was illiterate (due in part to dyslexia), Abu’l-Fazl must surely have written his history to be read aloud, which makes the music of the language all the more important. That is not to devalue Mr. Thackston’s translation, which is impressively meticulous. (...) Abu’l-Fazl navigates many labyrinths of conspiracy, seldom sparing us juicy detail." - Tunku Varadarajan, Wall Street Journal

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Abu'l-Fazl was long an insider in the Mughal court during the reign of Akbar (b.1542, d.1605; reigned 1556 to 1605), and, as translator Wheeler M. Thackston explains in his Introduction, he was commanded in 1588: "to write a history of the reigns of the Timurid sovereigns of India", and the resulting work was the Akbarnāma -- the massive The History of Akbar (the Murty Classical Library of India/Harvard University Press edition is now up to five volumes).
       As Thackston notes:

     The History of Akbar is far from a simple record of history. It represents an attempt on Abu'l-Fazl's part to apotheosize Akbar.
       Indeed, Abu'l-Fazl goes to great (and creatively-expressed) lengths to repeat and explain at every possible moment just how near-inexpressibly transcendent Akbar's greatness is. Already just in introducing his subject-matter, "the world emperor of our age" who is the nearest thing to God himself, Abu'l-Fazl heaps on the superlatives. Akbar is not just well-rounded, he seems perfectly rounded, excelling in every imaginable area (and Abu'l-Fazl imagines quite a few ...). There are pages of litany of his (apparently near countless) admirable qualities; consider just a short sample:
His breath kindles the brazier of the banquet of the spirit; his kindness fans the dawn of miracles; his justice brings forth sprouts from nature as temperate as Farvardin; his character is brimful of laughter from the breeze of Urdibihisht; the element of his body is a tried and true ascetic in solving enigmas; his sound intellect is a trusted adviser in discovering secrets; his exterior has the splendor of Jamshed and the glory of Fredun; his interior has the wisdom of Socrates and the perspicacity of Plato; he is disciplined externally and internally
       Abu'l-Fazl begins by acknowledging the enormity of his task and humbly wonders how on earth he can manage to do it justice -- beginning just in tackling the traditional opening thanks-and-praise-to-the-Lord. After all:
What then can I, a mere speck of dust, have in common with the world-illuminating sun of holiness ? [...] If a creature cannot succeed in knowing the creator so as to speak a few words in praise of his hidden marvels or take a few steps in the wilderness of understanding his secrets, how can it be right for him to enter the realm of the creator ? For one not admitted to court, to speak of a king's private apartments is to expose oneself to common ridicule.
       Of course, Abu'l-Fazl's proximity to Akbar and his court at least make his task slightly easier. He appreciates the great honor it is for him to be involved in this undertaking -- a section is titled: 'The author of this amazing book, Abu'l-Fazl, gives thanks for living during the reign of and enjoying the opportunity to serve His Imperial Majesty' -- and he revels in what this opportunity affords him:
I was lucky: I became wealthy. I was a singer of words: I became a reciter of praise. At the threshold of metaphor I opened the door to reality. I was a simpleton: I became a writer of subtlety.
       And it's the 'reciter of praise' that does, indeed, emerge here. Nary a critical word is found here -- not of Akbar.
       Of course, this first volume doesn't get to all that much of Akbar -- and that begins with his name; while it does appear a few times, his person is for the most part presented slightly more obliquely:
     Insomuch as I consider it impolite to mention explicitly the name of the emperor of the horizon of this book, which is a record of divine praise, I will refer to him as His Imperial Majesty (H.I.M.)
       The account proper then begins with 'portents of the felicitous birth of His Imperial Majesty' -- culminating in the timing of the birth itself, as the labor is conveniently delayed until it falls into: "an auspicious hour [...] the likes of which does not come for thousands of years". The babe is given: "the most exalted and most magnificent name" -- itself perfection, a balance of elements: "indicating the quintessence of might and majesty and all characteristics of excellence and perfection".
       Given the significance of astrology in the culture of the time, the timing of the birth is of great significance, and Abu'l-Fazl presents and describes in considerable technical detail several of the horoscopes cast by the leading readers of the star-signs. To say they all come up positively is an understatement:
     In short, if one looks dispassionately, it is apparent from every one of the horoscopes given in diagram that in terms of ability to know and recognize God, magnificence of power and position, and outward and inward augustness, he can have no equal.
       Abu'l-Fazl does note there are discrepancies among the horoscopes -- but their basic conclusion, that Akbar is destined for the greatest heights of greatness, is the same.
       The horoscope-section is rather technical; presumably some of the information is of value, particularly to those with greater familiarity with astrology and its cultural-historical applications, but most readers will probably be relieved that Abu'l-Fazl leaves the subject matter at what he calls a sketch (as, if everything were to be: "recorded completely and perfectly, assuredly many registers would be filled and volumes would have to be made").
       A short section gives: 'A list of the names of His Imperial Majesty's nurses and nursemaids', but then Abu'l-Fazl goes on at much, much greater length in tracing Akbar's genealogy: "a brief account of the fifty-two individuals from Adam to His Majesty he Emperor". These potted biographies are interesting because they cover many familiar biblical and then historical figures, and it is particularly interesting to see the spin of the times and culture on the Old Testament characters. Some are really fairly summary -- even better-known names, such as Methuselah:
Enoch's son Methuselah has so many children they were difficult to count. After his father's death he became chief of his tribe and called upon the people to worship God. When he was 900 years old he had a son named Lamech. After that, he lived another 290 years.
       Interesting, too, are the variations on familiar myths, such as the three great floods (before Adam; Noah's; the not-quite-so-great-one from Moses' time, limited to Egypt):
Although storyteller's of the age, who deluge us with words, attribute the first two floods to the entire world, apparently it was not so, for in India, where there are books several thousand years old, there is no trace of either of these floods.
       All roads and ancestors of course eventually lead to to the Mughal Empire, and as he approaches this Abu'l-Fazl slows down and fleshes out the activity of Akbar's closest ancestors -- grandfather Babur (generally referred to here as: 'His Majesty Giti-Sitani Firdaus-Makani') and father Humayun ('His Majesty Jahanbani Jannat-Ashyani'), and the conquest of the subcontinent. Much of this is a detailed account of the various stages of conquest and then rule, all leading up to: "the appearance of the greatest luminary and the rise of the star of magnificence that would illuminate the world" -- i.e. Akbar's birth. This then comes on 15 October 1542 -- and the account just continues for a short bit of his early life, this volume one coming to a close when Akbar is not yet a year old, with the next volume then plunging fully into his life, as this first volume is indeed very much the history of Akbar -- more backstory than life-story.
       The account of the coming of the Mughal empire is fairly interesting; here as throughout the summary-bits -- of which there are many -- can be frustratingly dry (but presumably of historical interest and use), but when Abu'l-Fazl expands a bit on some episodes they are often very entertaining. So, for example, there's an amusing account of: "several impatient and flawed persons who had made their way by chance to the fringes of the imperial retinue -- librarians, arms bearers, ink-pot holders, and the like" who get drunk and hold a party and, inspired by Tamerlane's early successes, "girded their loins to go on world conquest":
Out of madness and drunkenness they decided to go and take the Deccan, and in their intoxication they thus set down the slopes of their own destruction.
       Things do not turn out well -- and the punishments they face are pretty horrific .....
       This first volume of The History of Akbar is an uneven read, with parts -- the horoscopes and some of the historical accounts -- likely only of technical interest. Still, there's quite a bit more to it. Even in translation, Abu'l-Fazl's creative expression impresses (even as his effusiveness veers, for contemporary readers, into the ridiculous); Thackston briefly addresses the 'Language and style of the Akbarnāma' in his Introduction, which gives some sense of the original Persian text and Abu'l-Fazl's rich use of language. (The lucky readers able to read the original are, of course, well served with this edition, with the Persian text printed facing the translation.)
       Perhaps more of specialist interest, this first volume of The History of Akbar is nevertheless a good introduction to Mughal India -- historically as well as culturally, as Abu'l-Fazl's approach and language are already very revealing -- and, specifically, the context for the rule of Akbar (which is then much more fully examined in the following volumes).

- M.A.Orthofer, 15 November 2018

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The History of Akbar: Reviews: Abu'l-Fazl: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Abū al-Faz̤l ibn Mubārak (ابو الفضل بن مبارک) lived 1551 to 1602.

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© 2018-2022 the complete review

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