Witness to Marvels

Sufism and Literary Imagination

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Tony K. Stewart
Islamic Humanities
  • Berkeley: 
    University of California Press
    , September
     2019.
     336 pages.
     $39.95.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9780520306332.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Witness to Marvels: Sufism and Literary Imagination is a work of the meticulous scholarship we expect of Tony K. Stewart. Using the tools of literary analysis, Stewart attempts to make sense of the large body of Bangla pīr kathās—tales of miracle-working saints whose long-range goal is to secure Āllā/Allāh as sole divinity—and Muhāmmad as his messenger. En route to the religious goals, these saints aid people in their mundane difficulties, from life in the mangrove swamps, to childlessness, to peaceful coexistence with neighbors.

Stewart tells the stories, including of course the narratives themselves (which I will not recount), but also their provenance. The corpus from which he draws consists of more than 750 manuscripts and 160 printed titles by more than one hundred authors. Many of the tales have circulated for decades in cheaply printed editions. Stewart exhaustively read the manuscript sources, and his discussions of how he worked with these manuscripts will be particularly useful to future scholars. He tells us how he located those manuscripts, describes the physical conditions of many of them, and describes the difficulties of working with often deteriorating materials that may have been produced under less-than-ideal conditions.

Each of the six chapters of this book explores a different interpretive strategy, including semiotic analysis of semantics, syntactics, and pragmatics. Despite the size of the corpus, the pīr kathās have garnered remarkably little scholarly or critical notice. The lacuna is striking for several reasons, not least of which is how much these tales reveal about Islam in the Bengali context, for the tales are above all culturally Bengali.

Stewart tells the tales in and around his literary analysis of them and points out differences between recensions of essentially the same tale. His copious footnotes signpost the work of other scholars and often provide other interesting details tangential to the book itself.

He frequently mentions the even more voluminous Bengali genre of maṅgala-kāvya, using the word hinduyāni (Hindu Indic) to describe its religious perspective, distinct from the musalmāni (Muslim) world of the pīrs (Sufi saints) and bibīs (women). He knows this matters, for the maṅgala-kāvyas (literally, the “poetry of blessings” championing particular deities that constitutes a unique Middle Bengali narrative genre) have received a great deal of scholarly attention over the last century and more, while the musalmāni materials are largely ignored.

Stewart describes his reasoning when he makes an unusual lexical choice in his translations, and reminds us of the lack of orthographic standardization and the confusion that can ensue therefrom. Scholars at the Bangla Academy in Dhaka are only now working on the problem of standardizing Bengali spelling. In footnote 27 of chapter 2 (46), he observes what he seems to take as the idiosyncratic habits of one particular scribe regarding the use and placement of the letters reph /-r/ and the japhalā /-y/. Other scholars of Middle Bengali materials, meeting weekly throughout the pandemic to read texts (including this reviewer), have noted the use of /-r/ orthographically to signal a consonant cluster and with no phonological value, and the use of japhalā word-initially before /a/ or /ā/, again with no phonological meaning, so we know these usages are not as unique as Stewart suggests. Editors who are publishing manuscripts exactly as they find them serve the scholarly community well in allowing us to see more of these epigraphic practices and to realize just how widespread they were. Those unfamiliar with the difficulties of reading premodern manuscripts from the region, with these sorts of inconsistent spellings, might mistakenly think these variations signal scribal illiteracy. Rather they reflect both schools of scribal practice, and the lack of orthographic standardization, both of which are of interest to literary scholars of a linguistic bent.

The tales themselves are full of marvels and miracles, humor and ribaldry. Stewart identifies the discursive arenas in which each text operates. He identifies the presuppositions and intertextuality at work, and traces them back in a chain of precursors. That linking of texts, Stewart asserts, allows the scholar to understand more clearly what matters to a given author and why he made the specific authorial choices he did. Thus, we can see where attitudes and ideas have changed along the transmission routes. Each author is working within a specific semiotic domain that touches both those precursor tales, and the mundane world in which the author lived.

While there are many lead figures in the various tales, by far the most numerous are those of Satya Pīr. Stewart identifies three different emplotments among the Satya Pīr tales, finding “emplotment” a more useful category than trying to determine an author’s religious affiliation in our contemporary world of fraught identity politics. Those emplotments are Vaiṣṇav (with a strong affinity with the maṅgala-kāvyas connected to Dakṣiṇ Rāy), gendered creativity (focused interchangeably on Satya Pīr or Satya Nārāyaṇ, and in which women often save the day), and musalmāni (emerging later than the others, and depicting a new world order wherein Āllā/Allāh reigns supreme). It is in this latter group that we see a reorientation, an incremental realignment to a world view that holds Satya Pīr worthy of a following in a Bengali Muslim milieu.

Among the female protagonists Stewart covers is Bonbibī, the Lady of the Forest, who, like Satya Pīr/Satya Nārāyaṇ, is revered by both Hindus and Muslims. Bonbibī’s tale is more complex than the pīr kathās, and even drew the attention of novelist Amitav Ghosh, who cited excerpts in his The Hungry Tide to highlight environmental degradation in the mangrove forests of the Sundarbans. The Bengali tale appears to be patterned on the maṅgala-kāvya template which Aśutoṣa Bhaṭṭācārya describes in detail in his monumental Bāṅglā maṅgala-kāvyera itihāsa, and Stewart retells it masterfully. Given the depth and extent of the references Stewart provides throughout the book, it was a bit surprising that he neglects to mention the work of Sufia Uddin. Uddin has been translating the text (and Stewart read an early version of that translation in connection with Witness) and publishing about it for years, and her forthcoming book from Lever Press will consolidate and present her work in multimedia format.

With its elegant translations and careful literary analysis, Witness to Marvels allows non-Bengali-speaking scholars to enter the long-overlooked narrative world of the fictional Sufi saints of Bengal. Stewart’s masterful work makes a tremendous contribution to the fields of religious studies and comparative literature.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Rebecca J. Manring is a professor at Indiana University-Bloomington.

Date of Review: 
July 13, 2020
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Tony K. Stewart is Gertrude Conaway Vanderbilt Chair in Humanities at Vanderbilt University and a specialist in the religions and literatures of early modern Bengal. His works include The Final Word: The Caitanya Caritamta and the Grammar of Religious Tradition and Fabulous Females and Peerless Pirs: Tales of Mad Adventure in Old Bengal.

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