Scholars in Context: Khalilullah Afzali
Jadaliyya's Scholars in Context series consists of Q&As in which scholars of the Middle East describe their research and the paths they took to arrive at it. The series provides a platform for these scholars to highlight the significance of their work, identify the audiences they seek to reach, and outline their future research trajectories, giving readers an in-depth look at the latest research in a given field.
Jadaliyya (J): What is the main focus of your current research and how does it connect to or depart from your previous work?
Khalilullah Afzali (KA): Currently, my main focus is on some newly discovered Manaqibs (anecdotal accounts of the life of a Sufi saint, some quite incredible) that offer new information pertinent to better understanding the literary tradition of eighteenth-century Afghanistan. This has not been studied as thoroughly as earlier periods of Persian literature there, especially for the provinces of northwestern Afghanistan, where these newly discovered Manaqibs originated. My goal is to edit and publish these texts, as well as to draw from them new understandings of this period that have not, before now, been an important area of study. This current focus is in the context of my broader research on various aspects of the history of Persian literature in Afghanistan; I have undertaken this research as director of the Baysunghur Research Institute, which I founded in 2015 in Herat, Afghanistan.
In the course of my research on the history of Persian literature in Afghanistan in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, I came to realize that literary historians working on this period had previously focused on Persian poetry and the literary movements of the country's capital, Kabul. The focus in Kabul was on poetry and poets patronized by the royal court. However, in other regions of Afghanistan, Persian poetry; prose streams such as Manaqibs; travelogues; Tazkiras (biographies, generally of poets or Sufi saints, with samples of their writing); Mazarats (biographies of saints buried in a particular site or city); and correspondence flourished. During this period, prominent regional centers of Sufism, initiated by veneration of a particular saint, produced this range of literary output as a result of their belief and faith in their respective saints. Among the prominent literary schools whose works have survived are the Sufi circles of Karokh in Herat province; Khawaja Kenti in Faryab; and Deh Yahya in Kabul. In these circles, every few decades disciples and devotees made revisions in the treatises about their saints, based on the particular understanding and interests of their periods. Sometimes they also included the biographical accounts and anecdotes of the saint’s descendants, later saints, and successors. All this research sheds new light on aspects of historical Persian literature in Afghanistan that have not been addressed previously.
In my previous research and writing I focused more on editing poetry texts; researching the history and literature of Herat; studying the seventeenth-century Indian poet Bidel Dehlawi; and ethnographic research. This previous work is what led to my current focus, as my field of research has broadened.
J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does it address?
KA: My research shows that the eighteenth-century literary trends in Afghanistan were not the same in every corner of the country. While Bidel's poetry style was common in Kabul, in the Western city of Herat there was little familiarity with him and his style of poetry. During the same period, the region of Badakhshan was largely influenced by the literary trends of Transoxiana, while Herat was influenced by the literary currents of Iran. However, literary historians have tended to generalize the literary currents of the capital, such as Bidelism and martial writing, as applying to the whole country. This tendency ignores the regional and local differences in literary tradition in regions further from the royal court in Kabul.
In the literary history of Afghanistan, the literary activities of poets and writers in competing regional courts were excised by the historians in Kabul’s royal court. Examples of this include the work of Shamsuddin Nahrini, the composer of a martial book describing the battle of Sardar Ishaq Khan against Abdul Rahman Khan; Najmuddin, the composer of the Mahmudnameh, describing the war of Mahmud Khan, the Amir of Sar-e-pol, against the Aqcheh, Shaberghan, and Maimene rulers; and Mirza Shirahamd Mastikheli Jalalabadi, the poet of the Amir Habibullah Kalkani court. Jalalabadi’s case is of particular interest; he had been the poet in two previous royal courts in Kabul, but after also serving a Tajik court, the succeeding king removed Jalalabadi’s name from all his work and all books.
Apart from politics, some writers and poets were eliminated from the literature for ethnic and religious reasons. Some Sikh, Ismaili, Shia, and possibly Jewish and Zoroastrian poets were excised from literary history and study, including Vali Ram Hindu, a poet in Kandahar; Mirza Reza Bernabadi, a Shia poet and writer in Herat; and Khwaja Khairkhah Ismaili, a poet in Herat. The history of Afghanistan literature must include the literature of different regions, including Balkh, Badakhshan, Kabul, Kandahar, Bamiyan, and central Afghanistan. In writing the history of eighteenth and nineteenth-century literature in Afghanistan, more attention should be paid to Tazkira, Manaqib, correspondence, and travelogue writings. Text editing, translation, comedy, and irony, as well as poetry, are also important to the study of more recent Afghan literature.
J: What brought you to this work? What was the source of inspiration?
KA: During my research on Persian literature in Afghanistan, I have come across texts that have not been mentioned in literary sources. Reasons for these omissions may include lack of access and information about them. The genre that was very interesting to me was Manaqibs. The ongoing revision of these texts by subsequent generations, and their appreciation and reverence for them—which often led to popularity and profit—were among my motivations for working in this field. These kinds of texts can be analyzed and evaluated as literary texts, apart from any evaluation of the merits or claims of their contents; neither the veneration of true believers nor the dismissal of skeptics is relevant.
J: What audiences would you like to reach, and what kind of impact would you like your research and writing to have?
KA: The audience of this research is scholars and others interested in Persian literature in Afghanistan, especially Persian literature historians and scholars interested in Iranian and Afghan mysticism. I would like my research to raise awareness of and appreciation for the previously unknown, or ignored, Persian literature of Afghanistan. Through this work, my hope would be to explore and examine the specific social and cultural regional differences outside Kabul, which will foster a broader picture of the literary history of the country.
J: What other projects are you working on now?
KA: In addition to this project-based research, I am currently cataloging various Middle Eastern manuscripts in the University of California collections, in collaboration with a group of colleagues. In addition, as the director of Baysunghur Research Institute, I continue to edit and supervise the books and publications there. The third issue of the Nama-ye Baysunghur (Baysunghur Research Institute annual journal) has been prepared for publication and will be issued soon.