In a view of reappraising Abu Nasr al-‘Utbi’s contribution to the genre of dynastic history in Islamic historiography, the author undertakes to criticise the dominant scholarly approaches to the Ghaznawid historian, before suggesting an alternative reading of some of the most significant passages of his opus, the Kitab al-Yamini (ca. 1021 CE). Opposing at once the well-rooted “historical-positivist line of scholarship” that dismisses the chronicler’s ornate expression as a body of rhetorical untruths, and the “narrowly literary approaches” unable to go beyond mere stylistic considerations, Anooshahr offers a third, “conciliatory reading” of the Yamini, by appealing to nothing but the text itself and to its own avowed intents.
The review of the major academic positions on the Yamini could hardly be more radical: ranging from Nöldeke to Barthold and from Bosworth to Muhammad Nazim, the scholars of the past 150 years find themselves accused of being altogether “trapped by the prejudices of [their] time.” The critique focuses on the misreading of a series of relevant passages, all subjected to closer scrutiny in the second part of the article, where the author presents his own alternative interpretation: (1) The reference to the Buyid historian al-Sabi’ (author of the Kitab al-Taji), regarded as ‘Utbi’s “stylistic model” by those scholars who credit the “binary opposition between rhetoric and truth” is overturned. It is shown instead to suggest a parallel between the two chroniclers and the set-backs they suffered, thus hinting to the criticisms concealed in the allusive language of their narratives. (2) The same holds for the apparent reprimand of various aspects of Mahmud’s reign in the Yamini. It should accordingly be read as a nuanced exercise of double-entendre: in such instances as are illustrated by the famine in Nishapur, Fate alone is held responsible for the damage, while the sultan is never overtly censured but merely incriminated for his negligence. (3) As for the “formulaic” and supposedly unauthentic rendition of the Ghaznawid campaigns in India, the historian is shown to have thoroughly documented his account, though he did not witness the events in person. Anooshahr proves that ‘Utbi made use of such material as letters from the front and victory proclamations and, in the description of a given razzia, even literally quoted a letter by Mahmud himself. (4) Lastly, a set of bizarre elements relating to the Indian conquests are clarified in the same fashion and referred back to their sources. Anooshahr is thus able to relate the fantastic description of a “devious spring” located in the mountains near Kabul, where Sebüktegin’s battle is recorded to have taken place, to a passage in the Tarikh-i Sistan, itself a rewording of the wonders attributed to the “lake Frazdan [. . .] in Sigistan,” said to respond differently to the goodness and evil of men, in the Middle Persian Bundahishn. Under the appearance of an “innocent geographical description”, the evocation of Sebüktegin “riling” up the magic spring might therefore reflect ‘Utbi’s will to portray the Emir, of whose time he was nostalgic, as a Sistani hero.
While Anooshahr’s detailed discussion of the text indeed provides novel and convincing insights on the Yamini, the author at times indulges too freely in bold claims. Can ‘Utbi be said to actually “share the authorship of his text” with the sultan, on the account that he has quoted a letter by Mahmud? The assertion is repeated, but never fully explained. And as far as methodology is concerned, the reader would have all the more readily granted the conclusion that ‘Utbi’s richly convoluted rhetoric was intimately instrumental to his aim, had the scholars of the past centuries not been so harshly censured, and their positions, for that matter, not over-simplified.