Shafique Virani: Vernacular languages and preservation of their rich heritage

The DSR's Professor Shafique Virani is a 2022 Jackman Humanities Institute (JHI) Faculty Research Fellow. He spoke recently with the JHI about his research and his involvement with the Mitacs program. Mitacs is a national not-for-profit organization that supports the creation of research and training programs in Canada and its programs financially assist academic researchers in providing on-the-job research training opportunities for undergraduate and graduate students, and postdoctoral fellows.

JHI: Tell us a little about yourself and your background

SV: I’m a professor of Islamic Studies at the University of Toronto. My research focuses on Twelver and Ismaili Shi‘ism, Quranic studies, Islamic history, philosophy, mysticism, and pluralism, and Muslim literatures in Arabic, Persian, and South Asian languages, as well as Hindu and Muslim devotional literature in South Asia. You can learn more about my research on my website.

JHI: What prompted you to apply for Mitacs?

SV: I applied to the Mitacs Globalink program because I wanted to foster greater linkages between students on my research team at the University of Toronto and talented students from overseas. These sorts of interactions would be mutually enriching for both groups. Mitacs funds international interns from across the world to travel to Canada to engage in exciting projects here.

JHI: Can you tell us about your project and what you hope to achieve?

SV: From the fifteenth century onward, devotional literature flourished in the western regions of South Asia, including Gujarat and Sindh. Bhakti, Sant, Sufi, Ismaili, and other compositions exemplify this. A galaxy of devotees enriched vernacular languages with their Bhajans, Ginans, Akhyans, Prabhatiyas, Kafis, Vaaees, Dohas, and other genres of poetry and prose. Unfortunately, research on these rich traditions is very much in its preliminary stages. Neglect has led to the loss of many priceless manuscripts, books, and orally preserved narratives. Unfortunately, scholars have tended to focus almost exclusively on works in “classical” languages such as Sanskrit, Arabic, and Persian, neglecting the rich heritage preserved in the vernaculars.

My project aims to mentor junior researchers to learn about, preserve, study, and analyze this precious heritage, using a unique and rare collection of resources housed at the University of Toronto. Two weeks ago, Rati Patel, Tanvi Morwani, and Sambhav Jeswani arrived in Toronto to start their adventure. I have these students working directly with primary source texts and learning about the disappearing scripts that preserved this literature. Their preliminary work will set the stage for a better understanding of the linguistic features of these rare scripts and for preparing historical, linguistic, or literary analyses of texts.

For example, Khwajah Sindhi, now commonly known as Khojki, is one of the most important legacies of Sindh. I have a paper on the name, manuscripts, and origin of the script currently in press. The students are assisting me in digitizing and analyzing several works in this script. This will help us refine our understanding of its consonant and vowel systems and better appreciate the preserved works. Unlike most South Asian languages, Sindhi has a class of sounds known as “implosives.” Khwajah Sindhi is one of the few scripts that takes this unique feature into account. It records a treasury of literature in Sindhi, Gujarati, Hindi, Punjabi, Siraiki, and other South Asian vernaculars. This includes the Ginans of the Ismaili Muslims; verses of the most illustrious mystic poets of Sindh, Shah Abd al-Latif and Sachal Sarmast; passages from the works of renowned bhakti and sant poets such as Kabir, Mirabai, Nanak, Ravidas, and Narsimh Maheta; selections from the Spiritual Couplets (Mathnawi-yi Ma‘nawi) of Jalal al-Din Rumi in both the Persian original and in Sindhi translation; and Persian ghazals composed by Amir Khusraw and Shaykh Sa‘di. The Mitacs project will help us bring these riches to a broader public.

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Reproduced from the original article, with kind permission of the author.