The Ethics of Cosmopolitan Belonging: Moral, Literary, and Spatial Geographies in an Indian Ocean Epic

Taimoor Shahid

What do we make of texts that exist in multiple languages, geographies, centuries, genres, and socio-political registers simultaneously? Why do different authors separated by time, geography, language, and socio-political space compose the “same” text? What are the moral, literary, and spatial geographies imagined within, and constructed through the various narrations in these texts? This paper examines these questions of multiple mobilities, layered geographies, and practiced cosmopolitanisms by looking at one such text called Saif al-Mulūk. An epic romance tale of the eponymous prince’s journey in search of his beloved fairy princess, it has been composed throughout the Indian Ocean numerous times from the 14th to the 20th century, , in both poem and prose. It is extant in disparate sociopolitical contexts (courtly, devotional, and urban) in the numerous languages found in the 7000 miles between Tunisia and Indonesia: in Arabic, Awadhi, Balochi, in Bengali, Chagatai, Dakani, in Kurdish, Malay, Persian, in Punjabi, Pushto, Seraiki, in Sindhi, Turkish, Urdu, and in Uyghur, Uzbek, and others.

Impossible for anyone to read all renditions of this text, I examine it through a distant reading of Saif al-Mulūk. I abstract the tale to its narrative morphology—a narrative that is shared amongst all renditions inasmuch as a deviation would transform the tale into something else—and focus on a trope structurally fundamental to all its retellings, i.e. of travel and marriage with the Other, since in all its recensions, Saif al-Mulūk remains a journey text. It narrates the travails of the human prince in search of the fairy princess as he travels to Chin, Qustuntunya, Sarandip, and numerous imagined and real islands of the Indian Ocean. A Graphical Information System mapping of these travels within the narrative vis-à-vis the historical travels of the epic itself reveal a striking isomorphism. This space is also isomorphic to historic Indian Ocean trade routes. I read this isomorphism of the distilled structural trope of travel with actual travels of the text and the trade routes to ask: what enables such a wide reproduction of this text?  The answer, I suggest, lies in a shared imaginaire of a form-al cosmopolitanism. Saif al-Mulūk, I argue, narrates an ethical comportment of social cosmopolitanism in this world of ready mobility: of merchants, courtiers, laborers, adventures, literati, and others. While the seeming boundaries of this cosmopolitanism are the limits of Muslim polities, a close reading of a Persian rendition commissioned by a Dutch merchant in Vengurla, Goa in 1660 reveals an even larger cosmopolitan order.

Saif al-Mulūk, thus, can prove as an illustrative case for studying cosmopolitanisms of various kinds: from understanding the multilingual socio-textual worlds of the Indian Ocean and their relationships with each other, to the moral geographies constructed through the literary cosmopolitanism of these socio-textual worlds. Such a project—enabled by distant reading and cartographic mapping—provides new ways of concretizing interregional archives and connections of the Indian Ocean as discursive categories, opens a window into emic configurations of these relationships, and complicates our understanding of regional, disciplinary, and area-studies boundaries.