Using Bano Qudsia's Urdu novel Raja Gidh as a point of departure, this essay analyzes the ambivalent role of the novel in articulating the national and postnational tendencies of the Islamic world in general and Pakistan in particular.
Published in 1981, at the height of General Zia-ul-Haq's military regime in Pakistan, Bano Qudsia's Urdu novel Raja Gidh [The King Buzzard] draws on the oldest supranational myth of Islamic history: migration. The novel's philosophical message, therefore, privileges Islamic supranational affiliations over entrenched territorial nationalism. I believe it is this traditional supranational imaginary that generates, in the Islamic world, the tensions between territorial national loyalties and the supranational concept of Islamic Ummah. This essay attempts to tease out this hitherto neglected aspect of Islamic historical mythology within Raja Gidh and then apply it, albeit symptomatically, to the current national and postnational tensions within the Muslim world in general and within Pakistan in particular.
Raja Gidh contains two separate but interconnected narratives. While the main plot follows the protagonist's personal quest across a national landscape, the secondary plot, the main concern of this paper, deals with the trial of the Buzzard community at an international Conference of the Birds. Thus, by its very organization, the trial of King Buzzard is a fantastical juxtaposition of the postnational with the national aspects of the novel's realist plot. As Raja Gidh has mostly been read as a nationalistic novel (it has even been included in the exam for Central Superior Services of Pakistan), it seems that a departmental reading of the novel has appropriated it in the name of the nation-state. Considering the immense popularity of the novel, in its twenty-first edition now, it is only appropriate to examine the hidden and hitherto neglected narrative of the animal world and to highlight its treatment of the postnational Islamic imaginary. This discussion of the novel, despite its reliance on the nation as narration paradigm, will attempt to complicate the metropolitan theoretical views on the importance of history and the novel in creating what Benedict Anderson calls the imagined community.
Almost all major theorists of nationalism consider history and historical myths as a constituent element in defining modern nations and nation-states, and quite a few of them also consider the novel as the most nationalistic form of imaginary literature. Eric Hobsbawm, for example, in explaining his concept of proto-nations, invokes the historical mythologies: "This brings us to the last, and almost certainly the most decisive criterion of proto-nationalism, the consciousness of belonging or having belonged to a lasting political entity. The strongest proto-national cement known is undoubtedly to be what nineteenth-century jargon called a historical nation" (73, emph. mine). Similarly, Anthony D. Smith's definition of the nation incorporates the importance of history and historical myths: "A Nation can [...] be defined as a named human population sharing an historical territory, common myths and historical memories, a mass, public culture, common economy and legal rights and duties for all members" (140, emph. mine).
As Smith further develops his argument for the ethnic basis of nations, it becomes quite evident that this theory can only hold together if the participants can draw on a shared sense of history. Hence, reliance upon historical texts and myths becomes a norm in the process of defining a modern nation. The importance of historical consciousness, with a strong emphasis on popular sentiment, is evident in Ernest Renan's articulation of the nation. For him "the nation like the individual, is the culmination of a long past of endeavours, sacrifice and devotion." Renan's further explanation of the concept clearly emphasizes the importance of a common history in invoking what he calls the "common will in present" (19). …