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Historical Dictionary of Medieval India.

Historical Dictionary of Medieval India. By IQTIDAR ALAM KHAN. Historical Dictionaries of Ancient Civilizations and Historical Eras. Lanham, Maryland: SCARECROW PRESS, 2008. Pp. xxiii + 169, map. $75.

This is a short reference work with slightly under five hundred entries, pertaining mainly to individuals but also to some cities, literary texts, dynasties, ethnic labels, official titles, and the like. In addition to the alphabetically arranged entries, it contains a nine-page chronology, an extensive but dated bibliography, and a surprisingly good introduction to the "medieval period of Indian history," defined as the years from 1000 to 1526 (p. xi). It reflects the historiographic orientation of a generation of scholars at Aligarh Muslim University, where its author Iqtidar Alam Khan was long based. Aligarh's historians, who for decades dominated the study of "medieval" India (that is, the period of Muslim political dominance from ca. 1200 to 1750), have relied almost exclusively on texts written in Persian and focused largely on politics headed by Muslims.

Accordingly, this historical dictionary is strong on the Muslim political elite of North India from 1206 to 1526 (with a few Sufi mystics thrown in for good measure) and weak on everything else. Coverage of the two centuries before the establishment of the Delhi Sultanate in 1206 is spotty nor are the chronological parameters carefully maintained, as in the case of the earlier scholar Medhatithi (described on p. 101 as a commentator on the Puranas rather than on Manusmriti). With a handful of exceptions, such as the Chola kings Rajaraja I and Rajendra I, the people and places of the Deccan and South India are covered only inasmuch as they had some association with an Indo-Muslim polity. This unabashedly North Indian- and Muslim-centric perspective was once pervasive in Indian scholarship, but is no longer acceptable; in more practical terms, it is a shortcoming that severely limits the dictionary's usefulness.

There is no apparent reason why the dictionary could not have been expanded to include more of the sub-continent's territory and notable individuals. It is considerably shorter than the other volumes in the same series, such as the forthcoming Historical Dictionary of Ancient India by Kumkum Roy, which will be almost five hundred pages long. The likely explanation for its brevity is that the author was unable to extract more from standard accounts on "medieval" India, which typically provide far more detail on the Mughal era (ca. 1526 to 1750) than on the Delhi Sultanate period. We are told that "the themes for entries have been selected largely on the basis of the importance given to them in the major writings on the period, from the pens of Mohammad Habib, Tara Chand, R. C. Majumdar, H. C. Ray, Ishwari Prasad, T. Mahalingam, A. B. M. Habi-bullah, Romila Thapar, Haroon Khan Sherwani, Simon Digby and Peter Jackson" (p. xi). The list of secondary scholarship just cited contains very little published in the last forty or so years and only a couple of items relevant to the Deccan and South India.

The value of Historical Dictionary of Medieval India is further eroded by numerous errors. Some of these are simple inconsistencies, as when Qutb al-Din Aibek's last name is spelled Aibak on occasion, or the place usually called Cannanore is variously referred to as Kannur, Cannor, and Cannore. Other mistakes are presumably typographical: Kapilandra instead of Kapilendra, Sahms and not Shams, Ramcharitramanas for Ramcharitmanas, etc. But the contents can also be suspect: the entry "Allahkhand" on the oral epic named after one of its heroes, Alha (not Allah), is said to be contemporary to the twelfth-century battles it describes; while the Moroccan traveler Ibn Battuta is said to have traveled from Delhi to Peking via Coromandel, Malabar, and Ceylon, thereby obscuring his years of wandering in the Indian Ocean as well as the likelihood that he got no further than the southern coast of China. Nor is the rationale for the arrangement of personal names ever provided: why "Aitegin, Ikhtiyar al-Din" but "Ikhityar al-Din Alp Ghazi," why "Mahmud Shah Tughlaq, Sultan Nasir al-Din" but "Ghiyas al-Din Tughlaq Shah"? A reference work should be held to a higher standard in such matters, since factual accuracy is one of its primary justifications for existence.

Given these problems--and the book's exorbitant price--it is difficult to see who would derive much benefit from consulting Historical Dictionary of Medieval India. For up-to-date information on the Delhi Sultanate, a researcher would be better directed to the index of Peter Jackson's excellent monograph. The Delhi Sultanate: A Political and Military History (Cambridge Univ. Press, 1999). Scarecrow Press publishes numerous series of historical dictionaries, which it presumably markets to academic libraries. This particular volume cannot be recommended for purchase to any but the most ambitious collections, however.


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Author:Talbot, Cynthia
Publication:The Journal of the American Oriental Society
Article Type:Book review
Date:Oct 1, 2008
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