It's always been a source of amazement to me that stories from the days preceding the written word have survived down through the ages to this day. How many years after Homer sat around the fires at night relaying the history of the sacking of Troy was it before the words were written down on paper in an attempt to preserve them? Of course we have no way of knowing how much what is written down today resembles the original stories that Homer recited to his companions. Yet in spite of that it remains the touchstone for Western epic fantastical narrative to this day.
Without Homer, where would the world of fantasy as we know it be today? Perhaps we might have invented giants on our own, but single-eyed ones named Cyclops? I think not. Mermaids probably share a common ancestry with the sirens and the first witch to lure men to their doom. appeared in this tale to turn Odysseus's companions into pigs. Sadly, as we are beginning to discover to our chagrin, cultural chauvinism robbed us of access to even greater resources for inspiration as epic tales from both before and after Homer, that are equal to, if not surpassing, The Odyssey in splendour and imagination, recount the tales of heroes and the histories of peoples all over the world.
While Valmiki's Ramayana might be the oldest and most renowned of the great epics from South East Asia it is not the only one. Via the Muslim migrations and invasions of what is now India came the great heroes and villains of the Islamic world. Like the heroic tales of other cultures the dastan (literally tale or legend) of The Adventures Of Amir Hamza had its origins in history. However, as Musharraf Ali Farooqui reveals in his recently published English translation available through both Random House and Random House Canada, although the central character is named for the historically real figure of the Prophet Muhammad's uncle, Hamza bin Abdul Muttalib, who was renowned for his bravery, aside from that, very little of the subject matter is historically accurate.
This pattern of using real names from history or legend in the story, but ascribing them different characteristics and histories then had been previously recounted, holds true for all of the characters in the story. While the identity of Hamza remains a constant, over the years various legends and folk tales have been grafted onto the story which has led to the contradictory claims as to its origins. Some hold that it first began being told by the women of Mecca to honour the deeds of the original Hamza after he fell in battle, while others say it was first composed by the dead man's brother. Whoever originally began compiling it, whether it was in the 8th or 10 century CE, the version Farooqi has translated into English from Urdo – the language of Islam in Pakistan and the rest of Indian sub-continent – was first compiled in 1855 by Ghalib Lakhnavi and then revised and expanded by Abdullah Bilgrami in 1871.
One of the first things you'll notice in setting out on this epic journey, we're talking nine hundred plus pages, is the ornate style employed by Farooqi. Unlike another recent new edition of an ancient classic, Ashok Banker's Ramayana, this is not an adaptation but a translation, which means that he has adhered to the style of the original. For those who have read Captain Sir Richard Francis Burton's (not the actor, but the nineteenth century British explorer and writer) translation of The Book Of One Thousand And One Nights, popularly known as The Arabian Nights, you'll see similarities between the two. This has less to do with the translation as with the material Farooqi was working from as both the original text and Burton's book were subject to the same influences.
In spite of the fact that Lakhnavi, and later Bilgrami, both wrote in Urdo they seemed to be no less influenced by their colonial masters, the British, then Burton had been by the Muslim world he was interpreting. The result is that both texts, while set in Arabia, Persia, and India, have a distinctively nineteenth century British aftertaste to them. This isn't a judgement on their quality, merely an observation, and a compliment to the skills of Farooqi as a translator for being able to recreate that sensibility. Don't worry though, because once your ear has acclimatized to the sound of the text, and it should only take a few paragraphs or pages at most, you'll find that not only does the style fits the content, it increases the verisimilitude of the experience.
I've always asserted that if you want to learn about a people, the best thing to do is read the stories that the people tell about themselves. What do they admire in their heroes, what do they consider appropriate and inappropriate behaviour, and other characteristics are revealed in these epic stories that will tell you more about a culture than any history book ever written. Not only that, but as they were created to glorify the people involved they are full of countless adventures that range from waging battles, outwitting devious enemies, and battling with fearsome monsters.
The Adventures Of Amir Hamza actually begins before he is born as there are events that occur prior to his appearance on the face of the earth that help shape his destiny. We also learn valuable information as to the various factions within the kingdom where the story originates. We see how even before his conception he has had created some deadly enemies who would along with their descendants, conspire against Hamza for his entire life. Of course once he's born the action really picks up as at the age of five he's all ready having adventures that would put grown men to shame. As Hamaz ages his exploits continue to grow and his reputation expands as he fulfills the destiny foretold before he was born of rescuing the Emperor's throne and crown from the clutches of a notorious outlaw while still a teenager.
One of my favourite characters in the story isn't Hamza, but one of his boon companions, Amar bil Fatah. Amar is a trickster who delights in the discomfort of others and a great thief. As an infant he contrived to steal the milk from the breasts of the wet nurse who was caring for him, Hamza, and another baby so that he grew plump while the other two stayed small. At first his trickery is indiscriminate and mean spirited so that only through the friendship of Hamza is he saved from being sent away or cast aside. While he never loses his taste for stealing and trickery, as an adult he puts his talents to good use to take revenge upon those who would discredit or harm his dearest friend and patron Hamza.
Not only does Amar provide comic relief from the seriousness of other events he is also, like other trickster characters throughout history, a teacher of humility. He takes especial delight in deflating those, even his closest friends, who have let pride puff them up beyond their worth. He is a constant reminder to all the characters and the reader of what happens to you when you think too highly of yourself and that it is important to retain a certain amount of humbleness at all time.
The Adventures Of Amir Hamza is not only interesting to read because of its subject matter, its a lot of fun. It contains all the adventure and excitement of some of the best of sword and sorcery stories while supplying an introduction to the legends and mythical heroes of a culture few of us in the West know little or anything about. While reading this book might not answer all the questions you have about the history of the Islam or the Muslim world, it will give you a far different perspective on it than any you'll have had before now.