In 2017 we shall celebrate the 200th birthday of Sir Syed Ahmad Khan, the Indian Muslim who was declared a kafir by the mullahs of India on more counts than any other person before him or after. Here is a partial list of the reasons why some mullah or other thought Sir Syed was beyond the pale of Islam. He does not believe that wearing Western clothes is against the Shari’a. He believes that Angels and Satan are not real beings and instead believes them to be human powers, as endowed by God, to do good or bad. He believes that the Quran does not mention any miracle attributable to the Prophet Muhammad. He believes that Islam ended slavery forever even during the Prophet’s life. He eats at a table, while sitting on a chair, and uses a knife and a fork. He shares his table with Christians, and also eats at their homes. As countable in his biography by Altaf Husain Hali, the list runs to more than fifty similar accusations.

One of Sir Syed’s most persistent detractors was a Maulvi Ali Bakhsh Khan, a Subordinate Judge in the colonial administration. When Ali Bakhsh Khan went on Hajj he spent more time in obtaining fatwas against Sir Syed and publishing them back in India. Sir Syed’s response was something to this effect: I’m proud of my kufr because it made possible my friend Ali Bakhsh Khan to obtain the blessings of a Hajj. On another occasion, when his detractors fell silent for a while, Sir Syed wrote in his journal, Tahzib-al-Akhlaq, “I feel like that old biddy who was regularly teased by market urchins, and if any day it didn’t occur she would say, ‘What happened to the boys? Has some plague taken them?’”

Until now they used to be my examples of how best to respond to the fatwas that are headlined every other Thursday in the press—issued by some obscure entity eager to seek some easy publicity and written-up by some perfervid newsperson anxious to get into print that day. Now I have a third example, the statement issued by A R Rahman in response to the fatwa issued by Mufti Mahmood Akhtarul Qadri, the imam of Haji Alig Dargah Masjid, in response to a request made by Saeed Noori of the Raza Academy, Bombay. And what a classy response it is!

“What, and if, I had the good fortune of facing Allah, and He were to ask me on Judgement Day: ‘I gave you faith, talent, money, fame and health… why did you not do music for my beloved Muhammad (Peace be upon him) film? A film whose intention is to unite humanity, clear misconceptions and spread my message that life is kindness, about uplifting the poor, an and living in the service of humanity and not mercilessly killing innocents in my name.”

Read it in full; see how a genuine man of faith speaks, bearing witness to the faith that feeds his spirit and the talent he earns his living from, and considering both as gifts from the Divine and thus fully in tune with each other.

The trouble with people like Qadri and Noori is that they have split personalities and have as much stuff to hide as they profess to strut before us. And the news-writers go along out of ignorance—but also due to a lack of genuine curiosity. Qadri earns his living at a mosque attached to a dargah. Now if we went to a Deobandi mufti, he would be happy to issue a fatwa against anyone whose source of income is a dargah, for that is not what the Deobandis allow. For them: no dargahs; no grave-worship; no belief in any miracle-making saint. And the same savant would happily declare Noori a mushrik—one who shares his belief in God with a belief in another god—for Noori, when he goes to his ‘Bareli Sharif,’ bows before the grave of Ahmad Raza Khan, and touches his forehead to it. Likewise, God help the Deobandi who attends a meeting to celebrate the birthday of the Prophet but fails to stand up and sing along with the congregation when the preacher announces the Prophet’s birth. So it goes, and it gets worse every day. This rising sectarianism is to be blamed as much on the silence of the liberals in India, Muslims and non-Muslims—as on the belligerent vociferousness of the mullahs.

I am old enough to remember the time when the same kind of mullahs objected to the use of sound amplification in mosques. Even its use during the sermon part of the service on Fridays and the two Eids was considered an abominable innovation— a bid’a. Now even the tiniest mosque has two loudspeakers on its roof. One of the joys of my childhood in Barabanki was to wake up in the morning and listen to the music of the azaan as it came wafting over the air—in human dimensions. Now the same words turn into a painful cacophony as they blast into the air from at least eight different sets of loudspeakers. So here is a request to the newsperson who next goes to get the details of some fatwa from one of the savants from Bareli, Deoband, Nadva, Firangi Mahal, and so forth: please ask the savant what he thinks of the loudspeakers on his mosque; also ask him if there is not a ruling in several religious texts that no mosque should be built so close to another that its azaan—unamplified, of course—be heard in the other mosque? Then, if the mullah convinces you of the religious sanctity of his two loudspeakers, please move next door to his mosque, but please spare us his blathering calling it a fatwa. Please remember that a fatwa is not an edict; it is not binding on anyone; it can be countered by another fatwa; it dies with the death of the person who issues it; and it is never issued against some specific person. And please always tell us who might expect to gain some money or power from that fatwa.


Originally appeared in on September 17, 2015.

She was born Ashrafun Nisa Begum in September 1840, in a Shia family that held a small zamindari in Bahnera, a small town in Bijnaur district, north-east of Delhi. She died in May 1903 in Lahore, where she was widely known as ‘Ustani Sahiba.’ Here we shall equally respectfully refer to her as ‘Bibi Ashraf,’ as was also done by some in her time. When she was growing up she was forbidden to learn to read and write. But when she died, Bibi Ashraf had been teaching little girls of Lahore to read and write — and much more — for 25 years. What had transpired? How did she obtain what her guardians had forbidden?

Bibi Ashraf grew up in her grandfather’s house. Her father had struck out on his own, much against the wishes of his father, and worked as a lawyer in the princely state of Gwalior, far away from Bijnaur. Her mother had died soon after giving birth to a second child, a son, when Bibi Ashraf was only eight. Consequently she was raised by her grandmother, who loved her, and an aunt, who did not, with everyone under the strict control of her grandfather.

Since there were other little girls in the extended family, a live-in ustani, a young Pathan widow, was hired to instruct them in homemaking talents such as cooking and sewing. She also taught them to ‘read’ the Quran, i.e. to vocalise the Arabic text but could not teach them how to read Urdu because she herself did not know it. After only a couple of years, however, the young ustani’s parents found a match for her and got her remarried. With that, Bibi Ashraf’s grandfather ended the girls’ education. “I can’t even bear the thought of having a stranger in my house teaching my girls,” he declared, “It would be better if the girls remained illiterate.”

Bibi Ashraf could have studied with her mother, but unfortunately she died very soon after the ustani’s departure. By then Bibi Ashraf had learned to vocalise seven chapters of the holy book. Her grandmother, seeing her inconsolable grief at losing her mother, told her to read those chapters every day, and then offer their ‘reward’ to her beloved mother’s soul. Bibi Ashraf was soon doing that several times every day. “The constant repetition improved my reading skill, and soon I could decipher and read forward on my own. In that manner, through God’s favour and my own effort, I finished the Quran in just one year, and a majlis was held to celebrate the occasion.”

But she still could not read Urdu, the language she spoke. Urdu texts did not come then, nor do they come now, equipped with extensive diacritical marks. And the few female relatives who could read Urdu refused to teach her. She begged and begged but they were either scared of her grandfather or just couldn’t be bothered. “‘What would you do with it if you learned to read?’ they said, ‘In any case, teaching isn’t easy, and we don’t have the time or energy to waste.’” Then, if she persisted or began to cry, they would say, “Your crying all the time made you lose your mother; God knows what further misfortune your tears might bring now”. On one such occasion, the little girl wiped her tears and walked away, but when alone she prayed to God for help, and also made a promise: “If I ever learned to read Urdu, God willing, I shall teach that skill to anyone who seeks it, and even forcibly to those who might be unwilling, for I shall never forget the pain I feel right now.”

She then decided to learn on her own, but first she had to find some texts to read. She sent the word out among her female relatives to let her have any devotional poems that they might have, promising to return them after getting them copied. She also asked her grandmother to get her some blank paper from the market. Very soon she had some poems and some paper, but who was there to make copies for her? She could not ask her fearsome grandfather and equally irascible uncle, and no female relative had the necessary skill since writing had always been forbidden to the women in her family.

Tenacious and intrepid, the little girl again decided to do it herself. “I resolved that when at noon everyone rested I shall make some ink with the soot from the tava in the kitchen and start copying. And that is exactly what I did. I gathered some soot, the lid from a water pot, and a few twigs from the broom, then sneaked up to the roof [to be by myself] and happily started copying a poem. Childhood can be so innocent — no sooner had I copied a few words than I felt I had won the battle.”

Before coming back downstairs she broke the ink-stained lid and threw away its pieces. That routine she followed for many days — much to the annoyance of some of the ladies: “They grumbled and cursed the wretch who stole a lid from the pots every day”. And then, much to her dismay, she discovered that though she had made copies she was still not able to read them. “I had spent so much time and effort, but for nothing. I tried but could not make any headway. Then God brought me a teacher.”

One day as she was reading the Quran a younger male relative asked her if she could help him with his daily Quran assignment — he wished to be saved from the thrashing he received daily from his Maulvi Sahib. She agreed. One day, when she was helping him with his assignment, a book fell out of his book bag. It was an Urdu book, its text unmarked with diacritics. “What book is that? I asked. The script is like that of a marsiya. Read me some of it.” The boy did. She liked the contents, and asked him to teach her to read that particular book. The boy refused — he didn’t have the time; the book was too difficult for her; she could never learn — but quickly changed his mind when she threatened to stop helping him. Her joy, however, was short lived. Three days later the boy was sent away to study at Delhi.

But Bibi Ashraf still had his book, and so once again she started teaching herself a new skill on her own. Months of effort finally brought success. She finished the book, then turned to the copies she had made, and found to her great delight that she could make sense of those scrawls. “I said to myself, ‘Whatever one gets, gets only through her own effort’. I then returned to my routine with twigs and kitchen blacking — considering them my true teachers — and started copying sentences from different books. After only a few days’ practice, I was able to freely write from memory.”

But she had to keep it a secret. Though her grandfather had passed away, her uncle was still at home. It was only after he joined his brother in Gwalior that Bibi Ashraf’s ability to read and write became known to all the females in the extended family in Bahnera. Many of them started coming to her to get letters to their husbands written. “The women would disclose to me their innermost secrets, things that they would never speak of in front of anyone. I understood only one-tenth of what they dictated. But the letters I wrote for them brought back replies.”

Then came the turmoil of 1857, and for 18 months the people in Gwalior received no news from Bahnera. When some peace had returned, her father sent a man to find out how everyone had fared. The man took back two letters with him, one from Bibi Ashraf’s grandmother that she had asked her own brother to write on her behalf, and one from Bibi Ashraf that she had written on her own. Her father wrote back to his mother, “Mamun sahib’s letter told me the news of only the members of the household; he didn’t write anything of the turmoil or about the other relatives. The girl’s note, however, made me very happy, for she wrote all that she had heard or seen. Her letter gave me the pleasure of a newspaper or a history book. I read it over every day. But tell me, who taught her to write?” On learning that she had done it on her own, he sent her many gifts; her uncle, however, was very upset, and sent only a chiding note.

In 1859, Bibi Ashraf was married to Syed Alamdar Husain, a second cousin, who had studied Arabic at the famous Delhi College. After a stint in a minor position in the Education Department, he had been appointed as the assistant professor of Arabic and Persian at the Government College, Lahore. Unlike the men of the previous generation, Husain brought his wife to Lahore, where they had four children. Only two survived beyond infancy. Then a bigger calamity happened. Husain died of tuberculosis in 1870; he was then only 39. (Incidentally, it was his vacancy that was then filled with the appointment of Muhammad Husain Azad, the famous writer.)

Shortly thereafter Bibi Ashraf lost her father too. The director of public education, an admirer of her late husband, offered scholarships to the surviving daughters and Bibi Ashraf a teaching job in the local girls’ school; she accepted the scholarships but declined the job, choosing to support the family by doing sewing and lace-making at home. But eventually, in 1878, some elders managed to persuade her to accept the job when it was again offered, and thus began her long career at the Victoria Girls’ School — and the fulfilment of the promise she had made to God when she was in despair over her own illiteracy.

We know about Bibi Ashraf because an equally remarkable woman left us a book about her. Muhammadi Begum was a novelist and poet; she was also the editor of the Tahzib-e Niswan, the famous weekly journal for women that her husband Munshi Mumtaz Ali had started publishing in 1899. (It is little known that it was one of Muhammadi Begum’s poems that provided the title for Maulana Ashraf Ali Thanvi’s Bihishti Zevar — he quoted the poem but did not mention her name to protect his own modesty.) Muhammadi Begum knew Bibi Ashraf personally, and persuaded her to write several pieces for the journal, including an account of how she had learned to read and write. At Bibi Ashraf’s death Muhammadi Begum published a poem in Tahzib-e Niswan; then some time later she further expressed her love and admiration for Bibi Ashraf in a short biography entitled Hayat-e-Ashraf. It was privately published and remained lost till it was reprinted in 1978, though again for private distribution. It includes the autobiographical essay by Bibi Ashraf from which I have quoted above.

It is a book that deserves to be better known for several reasons. Besides telling the story of a remarkable person, it throws light on certain facets of middle-class Muslim women’s life in small towns in north India while also giving us a glimpse into the emergent changes in the lives of a similar cohort of women in Lahore at the end of the 19th century. I wrote about it in 1987 in an essay, ‘How Bibi Ashraf Learned to Read and Write’ in The Annual of Urdu Studies, No. 6. I subsequently prepared an English translation of the entire book but have waited to publish it, for I also wish to include, in translation and in Urdu, the 18 short pieces that Bibi Ashraf published in Tahzeeb-e-Niswan between 1899 and 1902. All efforts to find the old files have so far failed. Like so many other things, we have failed to preserve most of the cherished Urdu journals of the past. May I hope now for some reader to step forward and prove me wrong?


Originally published in Dawn (Karachi).


19. July 2015 · Comments Off on Tarana, Naghma, Anthem—what’s in a name? · Categories: Archive, Students, This, That, & This Again, Urdu Language and Literature · Tags: , , ,
Jagan Nath Azad was the son of Tilok Chand Mahrum. Both were good enough poets, famous and much respected while they lived, but now largely forgotten. Azad was also an informed admirer of Iqbal, and his writings on the poet are still worth a look. His name, however, recently keeps coming up in odd newspaper columns in India and Pakistan. Odd, I hasten to add, only because the columns are not about poetry. People keep mentioning Azad’s name in the same context as Pakistan’s national anthem, claiming that he was the first to write one—at the express order, a few even maintain, of the Quaid. The latest repetition of that legend is the witty essay “Nationalism over Verse” by Mr. Khaled Ahmed (The Indian Express, June 12, 2015), which unquestioningly refers to Abdul Majid Sheikh’s assertion in his recent book, Lahore: 101 Tales of a Fabled City, that “the Lahore poet Azad was commissioned by Quaid-e-Azam to write Pakistan’s national anthem three days before the creation of Pakistan in 1947.” Not having seen Sheikh’s book I cannot say what his particular source of information was, but I have seen many articles in the Urdu press in the past making that same claim.

At the base of all the fascinating verbiage is one sentence that Azad wrote forty-nine years back, and that too in an essay that had nothing to do with anthems. Azad, a prolific writer, wrote in several genres successfully. Ankhen Tarastiyan Hain, his book of personal sketches of some of the many remarkable people he met in his life, came out in 1981. It contains a lovely essay about a wonderful man named Salahuddin Ahmad—most people who came in touch with him added Maulana to his name, though he was anything but a conventional Maulana. Salahuddin Ahmad was one of Urdu’s foremost journalists, and his magazine, Adabi Duniya, was arguably the most respected Urdu literary magazine in the Thirties and Forties of the previous century.

In that essay, dated September 16, 1966, Azad mentions his own situation in Lahore as the date of “Independence” approached. On August 14, 1947, he tells us, he was the only Hindu still living in Ram Nagar, the Lahore neighborhood that was once almost exclusively inhabited by his coreligionists. He writes: “And one day I discovered that I was the only Hindu left of that original population of sixty thousand. Everyone had left. In that state [of things], on the night of the 14th of August, I heard from the Lahore Radio my own Tarana-e Pakistan.” He then gives the full poem, which contains five stanzas, and adds: “If I’m not mistaken, that was perhaps the first tarana-e Pakistan that reached the ears of the listeners the moment Pakistan appeared on the world’s map, i.e. at midnight on the 14th of August.”

To my knowledge, Azad never claimed that he wrote Pakistan’s first qaumi tarana or “national anthem.” Nor, as some have asserted, that he had been asked by Jinnah to write one. Had that been the case, Azad would have mentioned it proudly in 1966. So how did the legend develop that Jinnah had personally invited Azad to write an anthem for Pakistan, and that he did so because Azad was a Hindu and Jinnah wished to establish the “secular” core of his communal demand, regardless of the fact that Jinnah was not known for any knowledge of Urdu poetry, and that the two were never together even in the same city? It seems to have developed out of an article by Luv Puri in which statements were quoted from an interview that Puri had done in 2004 when Azad was almost 85. (The interview was not published in Azad’s life. Hiw words are quoted only in Mr Puri’s English, and are often confusing—at one place Azad’s friends tell him that Jinnah had asked for Azad by name, then a few lines later it changes into “some Urdu-knowing Hindu.” Puri also claims that the poem was broadcast from Karachi, when Azad in 1966 explicitly mentioned the Lahore radio station. Only the original Urdu text can tell us what Azad actually said at the time.)

The problem lies in Urdu, in its occasional impreciseness caused by the habit of so many of its educated speakers—I include myself among them—of frequently thinking in English while speaking in Urdu. It so happens that Urdu has three words—tarana; naghma; and git—that have commonly been used in the context we are concerned with. And Azad had obviously written a poem at least a few days before August 14 that he called “Tarana-e Pakistan,” and, equally obviously, it had been in the possession of the Lahore Radio for sufficient time in order for it to be set to music and broadcast at the historic midnight moment.

Tarana is a Persian word, and thus related also to Sanskrit. John T. Platts, in his highly dependable dictionary (1884), traces it into the Sanskrit root “taru,” and gives as its primary meaning: “Modulation, melody.” He also mentions its use as the name of a kind of song—the well-known genre of Tarana in the North Indian style of classical music. Syed Ahmad Dehlavi, in his equally trustworthy Farhang-e Asafiya (1918, 2nd edition) gives the following: “Literal meaning, a handsome man; melody, song; a particular kind of song commonly referred to as Tillana.” Naghma, on the other hand, is of Arabic origin, and its only glosses, in both dictionaries, are the same as the primary meanings of Tarana, i.e. “melody, song.” Had Azad titled his poem “Naghma-e Pakistan,” there would be none of the present confusion. His preference for tarana was simply another example of the influential popularity of the two Taranas of Muhammad Iqbal. And when Iqbal had titled his first such poem, “Tarana-e Hindi” (The Indian Anthem)—“sare jahan se accha hindostan hamara, now a popular, ceremonial marching song of the Indian army—he could possibly have had in mind a future independent Indian nation, but, far more certainly, he was not at all thinking of military parades, raising of flags, and other ceremonial occasions where a national anthem is now prominently sung.

When anthems and national songs are mentioned in South Asian contexts, some mention is invariably made of Muhammad Iqbal and his two poems that have tarana in their titles. Khaled Ahmad too brought him up at the end of his essay, bemoaning the fact that Pakistan ignored its “national poet…while choosing its national anthem, but in India, a poem of his, ‘Saare Jahan se Accha,’ is an unofficial national song.” Then Prof. Harish Trivedi, in his equally witty riposte titled “Anthems and Ironies,” made more comments on Iqbal’s poem and also brought in his second tarana, calling it a “revised version” of the first. He also expanded upon Pan-Islamism, Iqbal’s changing worldview, Vande Matram, and Muslim abhorrence of “anthropomorphic deification.”

According to the late Dr. Gyan Chand Jain (Ibtida’i Kalam-e Iqbal, ba Tartib-e Mah-o-Sal, Hyderabad, 1988), Iqbal wrote the first tarana poem in August 1904. He was then a lecturer in Philosophy at the Government College, Lahore, where Lala Hardayal, the future revolutionary, was a student. Hardayal set up a Young Men’s Indian Association in opposition to the existing Young Men’s Christian Association at the college, and invited Iqbal to preside over its inaugural meeting. Iqbal agreed, but instead of a formal address, he recited the poem he had expressly written for the occasion. It was so well received, a contemporary report says, that he had to present it a second time at the conclusion of the meeting. Iqbal’s title for the poem was “Hamara Des” (Our Land). Apparently, Iqbal gave the poem its present title when he published his first Urdu collection, Bang-e Dira (1924), when he is known to have extensively revised or edited many poems that he chose to include. (He excluded quite a few of his earliest poems, including an elegy on the death of Queen Victoria.) In any case, his tarana was an “anthem” only in the most common sense of that word in English: a rousing song identified with some specific group of humans.

The new title, however, placed the poem on an equal footing with another, later—post 1908—poem, titled “Tarana-e Milli” (The Millat’s—All Muslims’—Anthem), also included in that collection. It is not a “revised version” of “Tarana-e Hindi” but an independent new poem. Its famous opening couplet reads: “chin-o-‘arab hamara, hindostan hamara // muslim hain ham, watan hai sara jahan hamara” (China and Arabia are ours; India is ours too. We are Muslims; the entire world is our homeland). Posterity, sad to say, has largely read the two poems as antagonistic to each other, with the later poem, many claim, canceling out the earlier, and reflecting, as Prof. Trivedi holds, the “Pan-Islamism” that Iqbal allegedly championed after discarding an earlier Nationalism.

To my mind, Iqbal viewed the first poem as a patriotic anthem, while the second poem to him was just as much a rejection of territorial nationalism as it was a celebration of an exclusively Muslim group consciousness. That is made clear by the poem—a fierce denunciation of “Nationalism”—that immediately follows. Its title, “Wataniyat” (lit. Homeland-ism), is followed by an explanatory subtitle: “ya’ni watan ba-haisiyat ek siyasi tasawwur ke” (I.e. Homeland as a political concept). Iqbal, manifestly, wished to leave no impression that he was against Patriotism; after all, the Prophet himself had championed it. He only wished to reject modern, territorially defined Nationalism that then dominated political scenes across the world, a sentiment he expressed more explicitly many times elsewhere. Consider this couplet from “Khizr-e Rah,” one of his major poems, in which the legendary figure Khizr, his chosen “guide on the path,” lists for Iqbal’s benefit the theoretical concepts that bedevil contemporary world’s thinking: “nasl, qaumiyat, kalisa, saltanat, tahzib, rang // Khwajgi ne khub chun chun kar banae muskirat,” “Race, Nation, Organized Religion, State, Civilization, Color of the Skin—what wonderful soporifics Capitalism has assembled for you!” Tagore and Iqbal, had they ever exchanged ideas over a cup of tea, would have quickly found agreement on the dangers of blind Nationalism.

Bang-e Dira, in fact, contains two other poems that are of acute relevance in this regard. One is clearly marked as a “national song”—its Urdu title reads, “Hindustani Baccon ka Qaumi Git.” The non-use of taraana in the title is suggestive of an effort to avoid calling the poem a “national anthem.” The other poem comes immediately after this “national song,” and is titled “Naya Shiwala” (The New Temple). Both were written before 1905. Given the frequent brouhaha concerning some Indian Muslims refusal to sing the famous national song Vande Matram, it is worth quoting one line from the latter poem: “Khak-e Watan ka mujh ko har zarra dewata hai” (Every particle of my homeland’s dust is a god to me). I doubt if Iqbal would have had had any objection to the “anthropomorphic deification” in Vande Matram as opposed to the history and politics of the novel where the song originally appeared. His thinking on Nations and Homelands may or may not have altered with time—a matter that will forever remain contested—but the fact that Iqbal chose to retain all the four, above-mentioned poems in his very first Urdu collection is a strong reminder that we should think twice before pigeon-holing him in any fashion. Doing otherwise will only be to our own loss.

As for the question, Was Azad’s poem Pakistan’s first “national anthem”? the answer lies in asking When and where was a national anthem first sung or played in Pakistan? To my mind, it was when the Pakistani flag was first raised after the Union Jack had been lowered, and when Jinnah took the first ceremonial salute. Someone should find out what happened in Karachi at those moments. From what I remember reading decades back, it was only an instrumental piece of music based on the first stanza of Iqbal’s poem “The Earth Welcomes Adam” that begins: khol ankh zamin dekh falak dekh, fiza dekh // mashriq se ubharte hue suraj ki zia dekh (Open your eyes and see the earth and the sky // see the brilliance of the sun rising in the east). The music was composed by some unit of the Pakistan army, and it had been asked to do so because Jinnah did not wish to have “God Save the Queen” played at the march past. Let’s recall that both India and Pakistan were not then republics, and had only Governors General—formally “appointed” by the Queen.


First published in on July 19, 2015.


P.S. Soon after publication, a friend forwarded an important link—a detailed article in Dawn (Karachi) from 2011. I was not aware of it, nor it appears was Khaled Ahmed. Too bad for both of us.


One of the earliest reviews of Mirza Ruswa’s Umrao Jan Ada appeared in Mi’yar (Lucknow) in 1899. It began: “Taken as a whole this tale is written on the same model that Mr. Reynolds used to write his Rosa Lambert.” Note the confident — even if erroneous — reference to George William MacArthur Reynolds. The anonymous reviewer knew that most of his readers were by then well familiar with the English novelist.


Reynolds — radical politician, muckraking journalist, and one of the most prolific novelists in the English language — was born in a well-to-do family in 1814 but lost his parents while still young. Sent by his guardian to study at the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst, Reynolds soon ran away to live on his own and by his talents alone — the latter included thieving and gambling with loaded dice. A trip to France, soon after the Revolution of 1830, made him a life-long radical in politics, and a relentless champion of the poor and the exploited. He also discovered his talent for writing, and used it multifariously on returning to London. Tracts, stories, novels, journals, newspapers —Reynolds used every available print medium to propagate his views and champion radical economic and political reform. To his good fortune, Reynolds’s literary career coincided with rapidly increasing general literacy in the country, and his writings quickly became wildly popular with the newly literate men and women of the working class. Most of his novels were serialized in his ‘penny’ paper, Reynolds’s Weekly Newspaper, a Journal of Democratic Progress and General Intelligence, later renamed Reynolds’s Miscellany of Romance, General Literature, Science, and Arts, which at the height of its popularity was selling as many as 300,000 copies every week. One list of his works contains 43 novels, including two that may well be the most massive in English: The Mysteries of London (1848) and The Mysteries of the Court of London (1856). A contemporary of Charles Dickens, Reynolds saw his popularity eventually decline in comparison, as did his kind of radical politics. After his death in 1879, Reynolds was soon forgotten, and today remains only a footnote in standard histories of English novel.

That has also been his fate in Urdu. But between 1895 and 1925, Reynolds was the most avidly read novelist in Urdu, rivaling, possibly surpassing, in popularity the famous triumvirate of Nazir Ahmad, Ratan Nath Sarshar, and Ruswa. Reynolds’s first novel to appear in Urdu was Leila; or, the Star of Mingrelia (1856). It was translated by Muhammad Amir Hasan of Kakori, and initially serialized in the weekly Avadh Akhbar (Lucknow) under the title Fasana-e ‘Ala-Din-o-Laila, and subsequently appeared as a book in 1890. Much of its appeal probably lay in its ‘Oriental’ milieu and the love story that came bundled with international politics. Its success led Hasan to translate and similarly publish a second novel, Wagner, the Wehr-Wolf (1847), as Vegner-o-Niseda.

By 1896, the famous Newal Kishore Press had on offer three more translations, and other publishers were beginning to take notice. Four years later, 11 books by Reynolds were available in Urdu, and by 1918 the number had increased to 24, including the mammoth The Mysteries of London. Also by then, several of the earlier translations had gone through two or more printings, and a few novels had been translated more than once. Rosa Lambert; or, the Memoirs of an Unfortunate Woman, for example, could now be read in Urdu in two separate translations, and two more followed a few years later.

These translations were always selective — they invariably left out Reynolds’s long digressions into social and political commentary of his times — and much shorter than the densely printed long narratives that Reynolds always produced. Except for one, the translators seldom added anything of their own. Munshi Girja Sahay, however, freely put in his own thumris and ghazals in his abridged version of Margaret; or, the Discarded Queen (1857), converting the novel into something like a Scottish nautanki! The covers of these books and their advertisements often added jadu-nigar or jadu-raqam to the author’s name, turning him into: “The magic-making Mr. Reynolds”.


IMG_4035_2            IMG_1823          IMG_1804

Among the admirers of Reynolds who also became his translators were such notables as Munshi Sajjad Husain, the t please not Abdul Sharar. editor of Avadh Punch, who translated Master Timothy’s Bookcase (1842) as Dhoka ya Tilismi Fanus; Abdul Halim Sharar, the famous novelist, who translated May Middleton; or, the History of a Fortune (1855) as Khubi-e Qismat; the poet Riyaz Khairabadi, who translated Loves of the Harem (1855) as Haram-Sara; and Naubat Rai Nazar, a major literary figure at the time, who translated Agnes; or, Beauty and Pleasure (1855) as Sham-e Javani. Zafar Ali Khan, famous for his newspaper, Zamindar, translated the first three parts of The Mysteries of London as Fasana-e Landan; the work was then completed by Tirath Ram Firozepuri, who later translated The Mysteries of the Court of London as Nazzara-e Paristan; The Massacre of Glencoe,a Historical Tale (1853) as Khuni Talvar; Joseph Wilmot; or, the Memoirs of a Manservant (1854) as Gardish-e Afaq; and Agnes as Ghurur-e Husn.

“In those days everyone talked of Reynolds’s novels,” wrote Munshi Premchand (b. 1880) about his reading habits in youth. “Urdu translations were coming out right and left and handily sold. I too passionately loved those books.” No wonder then that the great writer’s first book, Asrar-e Ma’abid (Mysteries of Places of Worship), was a modest homage to Reynolds’s two Mysteries books, as were Sharar’s Husn ka Daku (The Robber of Beauty) and Asrar-e Darbar-e Harampur (Mysteries of the Court of Harampur).

It is fascinating that the melodramatic historical romances and the tales of decadence and crime among the rich and the noble of England that so much pleased England’s working-class men and women, for whom explicitly they were written, became such a huge success with the Urdu-speaking men of the ashraf and the newly emergent middle class in India. The emphasis on men is deliberate, for there is no evidence that Reynolds was ever avidly read by Indian women. In fact, it is quite likely that the brothers and husbands of those women kept Reynolds’s books away from them, labeling the books as ‘prurient’ or ‘sensational,’ while enjoying the same themselves. It is also noteworthy in that regard that a similar reception was not given to Charles Dickens, either then or later. To my knowledge, the first translation of any of his novels appeared only in the 1950s.

These translated melodramas played a major role in the development of the novel in Urdu. They taught many a thing to budding Urdu writers of the time: naturalism in descriptions of physical landscapes, realism in the delineation of urban glamour and squalor, literary strategies for creating suspenseful narratives, and much more. Here is what Pundit Bishambhar Nath wrote in the preface to his translation of The Seamstress; a Domestic Tale (1851) as Fasana-e Sozan-e ‘Ishq (before 1918): “This novel will please readers because [Urdu] novelists chiefly rely on excellent dialogues. When apt responses are given, or when someone tells an anecdote to another person, the result is always delightful for the readers. That delight, however, is like a dish that lacks salt if the narration does not also describe the physical gestures of the protagonists: the manner of their speaking, the expressions on their faces — the change in colour, the raising of the brow, or the casting of a glance, their delight or despair as they speak, or the state of fright or anger or bashfulness they might be in. [In short] the writer should tell us all that as if he were himself an eyewitness.”

Similarly informative about the influence of these translations on contemporary literary taste is the following comment from a reader of Fasana-e ‘Ala’uddin-o-Laila, included in its first appearance as a book in 1890: “The dastaan and fasana that were written in our country in the past, or are written now, consider it a sin to use readily accessible and unadorned language, or present a photographic image of a place or occasion…. This novel seems to have been translated with the purpose of enhancing the ability of our writers in properly delineating an incident (vaqi’a-nigari) and producing narratives that are also edifying (natija-angez).”

The most useful book in Urdu on Reynolds, and also the only one exclusively devoted to him, is Mistar Je Dablu Rinalds ki Savanih-‘umri by a Mir Karamatullah of Amritsar. It was published from Lahore around 1910, and deserves to be properly edited and republished. Academic historians of Urdu fiction, however, have not done justice to Reynolds. They have either ignored him or, like Ahsan Faruqi and Ali Abbas Husaini, noticed him only as a negative presence. Faruqi, however, has astutely pointed out how Sharar, in most of his historical romances, owed much more to Reynolds than to Sir Walter Scott. Azimushshan Siddiqui, more recently, has given a more detailed, but less analytical, account. A valuable introductory essay on Reynolds also appeared in Dawn (July 20, 1981) written by Muhammad Salimur Rahman, the reclusive savant of Lahore. But scholars of Urdu fiction have yet to do justice to “the magic-making Mr. Reynolds” and his devoted translators; both need to be given their rightful place in the history of the Urdu novel.


Originally appeared in Dawn (Karachi), July 17, 2015.

Urdu speakers take much pride in their language. They particularly flaunt Urdu’s allegedly unique ability to put into resounding words whatever spasm of politesse grabs them at any time. It’s often edifying to see the results, particularly when the politesse is mixed comes packaged with an intense desire to be “religiously correct”.

Consider talking of death. Urdu has one perfectly good, all-purpose word: marnā (to die). We also have, for the purpose of being more specific in a certain “technical” sense, qatl honā (to be murdered) and halāk honā (to die a violent death of some other kind, say, in an epidemic or a train crash). We also have generally applicable euphemistic expressions, such as uTh jānā and guzar jānā (to be lifted from the world; to pass on). Then there are the more “formal” or “dignified” expressions for a general use, like wafāt pānā and intiqāl honā (to die). I may write, Pandit Nehru kā intiqāl 1949 men huā, or Qaid Azam ne 1950 men wafāt pāī, and in both cases my Urdu would be considered quite correct. I would, in fact, get an A for not using marnā with reference to the two statesmen. On facts alone would I be denounced, and rightly so.

Now consider the situations that the editors of some Urdu newspaper in Pakistan recently faced, and the decisions they made regarding the word “killed.”

In December 2014 there was a horrifying attack on the students of the Army Public School at Peshawar. The headline of the report in the Jang read:

In the terrorist attack on the Army Public School, 137 persons, including children, were killed (shahīd) and more than 245 injured.

The report then used the word shahīd (martyr) several times with reference to the victims, in general, and the children, in particular. I was not able to access the report in the Express, but one can be sure that it too did exactly the same.

A month later, there was an equally dastardly attack on a Shi’ah mosque in Shikarpur, in which 58 persons, including many children, lost their lives, and many more were injured. This is how the Jang headlined its report on January 30, 2015:

Fifty-eight persons, including children, who had come to offer Friday prayers were killed (jān ba-haq) when an explosion occurred inside the Imambargah at Lakhi Dar in Shikarpur.

Jān ba-haq is an abbreviation of the euphemistic expression jān ba-haq taslīm karnā, i.e. “to submit one’s life to God.” The report used that expression throughout. In this case, I was able to check the report in the Express—they too had done exactly the same.

On May 7, 2015, there was a tragic accident in Gilgit in which an army helicopter carrying various foreign diplomats crashed while landing. The Jang reported it with the headline:

Due to some technical problem, a Pakistani army helicopter crashed near Gilgit, and seven persons were killed (jān ba-haq).

However, as the report progressed, the paper used (jān ba-Haq) with reference to the ambassadors and their wives, and consistently used shahīd when it referred to the two Army pilots and one Army technician. The Express, in this case, consistently used the common expression halāk hona (to be killed) with reference to both groups. Two other papers that I looked into, Dunya and Nai Bat, followed the Jang’s example, and used jān ba-Haq with reference to the foreigners and shahīd concerning the Pakistani army personnel. Apparently, in the opinion of the Jang, Dunya, and Nai Bat, even the Muslim wives of the Ambassadors from Malaysia and Indonesia were not considered fit to be designates as martyrs.

A few days later there was a horrible attack on a private bus in Karachi. The Jang reported it in this manner:

Terrorists forced their way into a bus of the Isma’ili community and blindly opened fire on innocent passengers, as a result 45 persons, including women, were killed (jān ba-Haq).

The same expression was used in the three other newspapers that I checked that day: Dunya, Express, and Nai Bat.

Earlier this year, on Sunday, March 15, two separate suicide bombers attacked two churches in Lahore. As a result 15 Christian worshippers died, while 79 were severely injured. Both the Jang and Express reported the tragedy in bold letters on their front pages, but both used the expression halāk honā to refer to the Christian victims of the attack. Mercifully, the suicide bombers, both Muslims, were not called either shahīd or jān ba-haq. In fact, they were not much mentioned at all.

Five years back, on May 28, 2010, Lahore witnessed another ghastly carnage, when two Ahmadi mosques were similarly attacked during the Friday congregational prayers. As a result 88 worshippers, including women and children, instantly lost their lives, and more than 200 worshippers were badly injured. Urdu newspapers rigorously referred to them as mahlukīn (the killed). And, of course, as required by law in Pakistan, they referred to the Ahmadi mosques as ahmadī ‘ibādatgāh.

The headline in the Express next day read:

Firing in Ahmadi Worship-places in Garhi Shahu and Model Town; Suicide bombings; 88 killed (halāk), 200 wounded.

In the body of the full report, the Express used the expressions halāk honā and marnā when referring to the victims, except near the very end when it said: “It is feared that the number of people killed (jān ba-haq) in this terrorist attack could exceed 100.” Earlier the report mentioned that one of the victims was Major General (retd.) Nasir Ahmad—a cousin of Sir Zafarullah Khan, Pakistan’s first Foreign Minister—but both times used the verb marnā. The report in the next day’s paper used marnā and halāk honā exclusively. I was not able to access the issues of the Jang—their Internet archive does not go that far back—but I am confident that they did exactly the same, and used only the expressions marnā and halāk honā with reference to the Ahmadi victims of a well-coordinated attack by “mainline” Muslim fanatics.

So, what do we learn from this little exercise?

At least in these two Urdu newspapers, the attackers are always only dahshatgard (terrorists). They either blow themselves up to smithereens or are killed (māre gaye). Their religious/sectarian affiliations are not mentioned; they may, however, be identified as belonging to some organization, particularly if that organization immediate takes “credit” for the carnage.

As for the victims, Christians and Ahmadi Muslims only die or get killed (marnā; halāk honā). Shi’ahs and Ismailis get to “submit their lives to the Truth” (jān ba-Haq), and foreign dignitaries—Muslim and non-Muslim, alike—may get that privilege too. Only the non-Ahmadi Army personnel and students at Army schools are unequivocally recognized as worthy of being designated as “martyrs” (shahīd).

Both the Jang and the Express have sister publications—The News and the Express Tribune, respectively— in English. In them, people “die” or get “killed”, but the news-writers remain respectfully silent about the deceased person’s relationship with his Maker.

Verbal religious finesse has not yet reached such dubious heights in the Urdu press in India, but the potential is very much there. I well recall the time, decades ago, when Maulana Abdul Majid Daryabadi raised a ruckus in his popular and influential weekly, Sidq-e Jadīd (Lucknow), over someone’s use of the word marhūm with reference to either Jawaharlal Nehru or Lal Bahadur Shastri. The word is commonly used in Urdu the way the expression, “the late….” is used in English, its more literal meaning being, “One who has received God’s Mercy.” The Maulana insisted that it was not correct to use marhūm with reference to non-Muslims, and that instead everyone should use ān-jahānī (Belonging to the Other World). As I remember, the Maulana very much prevailed over the few who had opposed his assertion. Even now one hardly ever sees marhūm after a non-Muslim name in Indian Urdu newspapers. It is always ān-jahānī, placed before or after the deceased’s name. Incidentally, if memory still serves me right, the old Arya Samajist Urdu journals, used marhūm with Muslim names, granting them the mercy of Allah, and svargīya or svargbāshī (Residing in Paradise) with Hindu names. What they did with Christian and Sikh names escapes my memory.


*Published in on June 27, 2015.

05. June 2015 · Comments Off on Islamophobia and Blasphemy · Categories: Archive, Muslims in South Asia, The Only World We have · Tags: , , ,

I have huge respect for Javed Anand and the work he has been doing (with Teesta Setalvad) for a few decades. But I would like to raise some caveats concerning his piece ‘On the other side of fear‘ (IE, September 29).

His essay chiefly consists of three parts. In the first, he rightly condemns the manner in which Muslims in some countries have protested against the notorious anti-Islam video. Next, he asserts that something new is taking place now: a “reiteration… by a growing number of Muslim scholars that Islam too rests on the freedom bedrock and the very notion of blasphemy is ‘un-Islamic’.” In support of this claim, Anand refers us to unnamed editorial-writers and religious leaders in the Urdu press, and in particular draws our attention to a “boxed” letter from a Saudi Arabia-based Indian Muslim, Abdul Rehman Mohammed Yahya, that simultaneously appeared on September 24 in three Urdu journals, Sahafat, Inqilab and Rashtriya Sahara. To quote Anand: “The gist of the long letter is a rhetorical question addressed to fellow Muslims: ‘What did Prophet Muhammad do in the face of repeated insults heaped on him during his lifetime?’ The answer: he forgave them.”

Surely, the present Muslim definition of “blasphemy” is not limited to “any insult to the Prophet of Islam”? Even in India, there are at least two prominent anti-”blasphemy” movements at play among the Muslims under the guise of Tahaffuz (Protection): Tahaffuz-i-Khatm-i-Nabuwat (Protection of the Finality of Prophethood), accusing the Ahmadis of “blasphemy”; and Tahaffuz-i-Namus-i-Sahaba (Protection of the Honour of the Companions of the Prophet), accusing the Shias of “blasphemy”. Not to mention the accusations of “blasphemy” against Salman Rushdie and Taslima Nasrin. Second, while Anand is right in stating that it “is a universal Muslim belief that the Prophet never retaliated to repeated insults to him, through either word or deed”— and, indeed, the vast majority of Muslims live by that belief, and many may even try to emulate it in their own lives — it is also true that a few enemies of the Prophet were ordered by him to be mortally punished, including one or two who verbally abused him. A devout Muslim, therefore, may claim a right to follow whichever tradition suits his own inclination.

The issue should not be what the Prophet did or did not do, for once we raise it we only fall into an easy trap. It becomes a conflict between only apparently equal claims of righteousness; quickly, it becomes another instance, at best, of sectarianism, and, at worst, of “blasphemy”. In any case, a devout Muslim may aspire to emulate the Prophet’s actions but by the same token can never claim to have done so. Yahya’s letter is a good sign, but so are also a few other articles. These are acts of personal piety, and one must be thankful for them. But the same boxed space — actually there is nothing special or prominent about it — in Sahafat (Delhi) that carried Yahya’s letter contained on September 29 a letter on the same subject of the video from a Muhammad Ziaur Rahman, department of Urdu, Delhi University, under the title: “Yahud wa Nasara Musalmanon ke Khullamkhulla Dushman” (Jews and Christians are blatant enemies of the Muslims). Rahman claims, among other things, that on September 11 this year, the film “Innocence of Muslims” was shown in cinemas across the United States, and that the United States rained missiles on Iraq when a woman in Baghdad named Laila Al-Attar drew a cartoon of President George Bush [in 2003].

In the final part of his essay, Anand highlights “Islamophobia” in Western countries, using as his chief source a recent book, The Islamophobia Industry, by Nathan Lean. I confess I have only read about the book, and not the book itself. Its significance seems to lie in what its subtitle describes: “How the right manufactures fear of Muslims.” It is the political right in the US that Lean is concerned with, and “Islamophobia” is not what describes it. The American right has its own political agenda; its domestic dimension, in fact, is its chief driving force. “Islamophobia” is only one of its many tactics — similar, to my mind, to the fear-mongering of the right in India, as also of the right among Indian Muslims. Vis-à-vis the latter, it mainly takes the form of “anti-Jewism” and anti-Ahmadism, together with the cry of an exceptional and absolute “victimhood”. From the perspective of the health and security of any democratic polity or its civic society, however, the two slogans—“Islam is a cancer” and “Islam is in danger”—are equally pernicious and corrosive.

Anand closes his comments by asking a rhetorical question: “Are Muslims being made the “new Jews” in post-Holocaust West?” The influence and success of the Israel lobby in American politics should not mean that anti-Semitism has disappeared in the US. It is as much present now as is racism, though not in the blatant manner it used to be before World War II, and, judged by what appears in the Urdu journals of India and Pakistan, still is among much of the Muslim population in South Asia.


Originally published in The Indian Express (New Delhi), October 2, 2012.

Did you hear that the American Ambassador in Rome went and lit seven candles before the case containing the Shroud of Turin on behalf of President Barack Obama? Or, that the Secretary of State, John Kerry, ordered a diplomat from the American Consulate at Chennai to go and place flowers on the deity in the holiest temple at Thanjavur? I’m sure you did not. And for a very good reason—neither incident actually happened. I made them up just now to catch your attention. Now consider the following news as reported today (April 21, 2015) in some Urdu newspapers in India:

American President sent a chador [a ceremonial sheet of cloth] to the annual observation at the shrine of Khwaja Muinuddin Chishti at Ajmer.

All papers also published images to complement the news. Here is one report in the Sahafat (Lucknow). Chador at Ajmer 4:21

The caption reads: “Ajmer: At the occasion of the 803rd ‘Urs of Khwaja Mu’inuddin Chishti people are carrying the chador sent for presentation by the American President Barack Obama.” The same image appeared the same day in the Aag, another daily published from Lucknow, with some additional details:

report in Aag 4:21

Ajmer: A special chador was presented on behalf of the American President  Barack Obama at the 803rd ‘Urs of Khwaja Mu’inuddin Chishti.  Today was the first day of the six-day commemoration. Richard Verma, the American Ambassador to India had given this red sheet to Salman Chishti, an attendant at the shrine, on Thursday in Delhi. And today he, [i.e. Chishti], offered that sheet at the shrine and read out the message sent by the American President in which the latter had said that no matter what our beliefs and traditions we must strive to make Peace a certainty, and that we must spread light where there was darkness and love where there was hatred.

A different image was published in the daily Sahara in its New Delhi edition.

Sahara image

The headline reads, “American President sent a chador for the ‘urs of Khwaja Mu’inuddin Chishti.” The report mentions that it was given by the American Ambassador to an attendant of the shrine and was carried to the sacred grave by some “officials from the Embassy.”

Khwaja Mu’inuddin Chishti (d. 1236) was the founding saint of the Chishti Sufi order in India, and is popularly regarded as the “Head” of all Sufis in India. His ‘urs or the annual commemoration of “the day he joined his Beloved”—God—is celebrated in a grand manner. Over the years it has become common to read in the news about Bollywood stars of any age and Indian politicians of every hue visiting the shrine, and further displaying their devotion by offering elaborate chadors. These are usually draped over the grave of the saint for a while and then shared by the attendants or resold to another devout visitor.

Not having come across any previous indication of President Obama’s devotion to saints and shrines even of the Christian kind, I was quite intrigued by these reports. Bollywood celebrities and Indian politicians go to Ajmer to ensure success in their enterprises, both business and electoral. Ordinary folks visit the shrine hoping to get the saint to intercede with God on their behalf and let them have a child (preferably male), be ridden of some possessing spiri (male or female), escape conviction in some court case, succeed in examinations and interviews, get a job in Dubai or a visa to the United States, and so forth. But why, I wondered, should the President of the world’s greatest power and its most exceptional nation send a gaudy satin sheet to have it draped over the grave of a 13th century saint in a remote town in Rajasthan, India?

Then other questions came up. Did he pay for it personally, or did the Embassy buy it? And if it was the Embassy in New Delhi, then under what account did they list the expenditure to satisfy the General Accounting Office nitpickers? The last question revealed the whole story, for it was, as young people say, a “no brainer.” The money for that gaudy red satin sheet must have come from the funds earmarked “War on Terror; sub-category: Islamic Extremism.”

Obviously either the White House or the Embassy in India—probably both—has swallowed the latest snake oil being peddled by the experts on “Islamic Terror.” Turn all Sunni Muslims into Sufis, the latter declare, and the world will become safe from all the Wahhabis, Salafis, Deobandis, Ikhwan, Jama’atis, and other baddies. An attractive solution for many reasons. Just compare the price of a satin sheet with the cost of a missile fired from a drone. There is no collateral damage either. And it offers much better photo opportunities.

Curiously, only just recently, similar “experts” in New Delhi brought a bunch of Imams and Sufi shrine-keepers, led—you guessed it—by another caretaker from Ajmer, to meet with Prime Minister Modi. The worthies offered their “Sufi Islam” in the service of the new government. Here is an image of that historical meeting on April 6, 2015 as reported in Sahafat in its Delhi edition of April 8

. Ulama and Modi copy

Could it be that it was not some hapless junior officer at the Embassy but Prime Minster Modi, who recommended this low cost-high gain “sheet diplomacy” to his friend, admirer, and biographer in the White House? And that it was the Defender of the First Amendment who chose to go along just to humor his new-found soulmate in New Delhi? We will never find out.

Meanwhile let us hope that the caretakers of the Shroud of Turin and the priests at the temples of Thanjavur do not come across this blog and start demanding similar displays of faith and devotion from nearby American diplomatic missions.


P.S. Today’s (April 22, 2015) Sahara (New Delhi) brings the news that Sonia Gandhi, Atal Bihari Vajpeyi, and Narendra Modi have also offered chadors at the shrine. The chador sent by by the President of the Indian National Congress, as seen in the picture below, could be the grandest—it is definitely larger and more elaborate than that sent by the President of the United States. As always, the State Department chooses to economize where it shouldn’t. A chador being brought from Pakistan is reported to be a mile long. Now that is some sheet.

Sonia's chador




An editorial—‘Into the Open’—in the Express-Tribune of December 16, 2014, begins: ‘There has been much speculation, frequently alarmist or simply ill-informed, as to the extent or otherwise that the Islamic State (IS) has a presence in Pakistan. Government ministers have gone on-the-record to say that there is no IS presence, but there are reports of supportive wall-chalking and the circulation of literature that supports the IS from several parts of the country.’ It then goes on to allow that ‘there are parts of the country where the extremist mindset has been fostered and grown over many years, and the ideology of the IS may find fertile ground to root itself in,’ and offers two examples. One is of Abdul Aziz, the chief cleric of the infamous Lal Masjid in Islamabad—the paper charges: ‘[Aziz] is happy to declare that he holds the group in high regard’—and the other is the case of some ‘female students of Jamia Hafsa [a part of the same institution] who have prepared and circulated a video extolling the IS.’

The naming of names is commendable even if it amounts to only one institution, for the practice is rather rare in Pakistani editorials and columns. But I wonder why the editors of the Express-Tribune had go to the trouble of finding just one example so far away from their comfortable offices when they could have easily found an equally redoubtable supporter of IS in their own sister Urdu journal, the Daily Express. I, of course, mean the one and only Orya Maqbul Jan, the self-proclaimed expert on International Finance, Muslim Political History, and the Doomsday. Consider his column of November 17, 2014—titled Taqsim Wazih Ho Rahi Hai’ (‘Lines are now clearly drawn’). In it he ever so blithely argued that Syria was the place where lines had been clearly drawn between Islam and non-Islam, and where would likely be, in his view, ‘the headquarters of [the promised] Imam Mehdi and the capital of his Caliphate.’ He then expanded his argument by quoting two alleged hadith. According to one, the Prophet allegedly prophesied that before the end of the world there would be a decisive battle between Muslims and Christians near Aleppo, and that, according to the second alleged hadith, the best among the Muslims at that time would be those who would do the hijrat to Syria—in other words those who would leave their lands to join the Mehdi’s army.

A few days later, on December 5, 2014, Mr. Jan shifted from Doomsday forecasts to Political History and questioned the sincerity of any Muslim who accused Amirul Mominin Abu Bakr Baghdadi and his IS crowd of wanton killing. I cannot reproduce here his long and a bit convoluted argument—it should be read in Urdu to get its full flavour—but this is how he closed: ‘According to all the principles of Political Science the Daulat-e Islamiya [i.e. IS] is a state; it is also a state according to those who champion the cause of a Muslim Social/Political Contract (musalmanon ka nazm-e ijtima’i).” He then proceeded to argue that in 1988 the revolutionaries in Iran were fully justified in declaring Iranian Communists and Liberals to be mulhid (heretics) and munafiq (dissembling enemies) and therefore fully deserving execution as enemies of the Revolutionary Islamic State. If that was right in 1988, he asked his co-religionists, why should it be wrong and un-Islamic now?

Then, only a day before the Express-Tribune published its editorial, Mr. Jan published the second part of a long essay against contemporary democracies, arguing in favor of a system where only certain ‘worthy’ individuals should have the right to choose the ruler of a Muslim state, and that once a Caliph had been chosen in that manner it was incumbent on all Muslims to obey him. No one must challenge a ‘chosen Caliph,’ he wrote, and then, expectedly, quoted another alleged hadith in which the Prophet allegedly ordered that in situations where two persons claimed the title and obtained allegiances (bai’at) from different supporters, ‘the person to make the second claim must be executed.’

Now it is quite possible that the common owner of the two journals has issued strict orders that the people of one journal should never question or even read what the other publishes. That would make good business sense. Each journal then meets the expectations of the audience the owner and his advisors imagine for it, and does nothing to rock the boat of commerce.

The same business acumen might be seen in two other sets of twin publications that I am slightly familiar with: the hellfire and brimstone in some of the columns of Jang and Nawa-i-Waqt do not find their way into the columns of The News and The Nation, just as the moderate and rational mode of thought in most columns of the latter two does not seep into the la-la musings that the former two mainly peddle. Most instructional in that regard are the English and Urdu versions of the column that the ‘Father of Islamic Bomb’ Dr. A. Q. Khan writes in The News and Jang. When writing on some political issue he always appears more subdued in English, but lets loose in Urdu. In the same two newspapers, Ansar Abbasi, another popular columnist, takes an easier way out by writing on certain subjects only in Urdu, avoiding them in English and in general dampening down his rhetorical flourishes.

Not quite coincidental to the above is the fact that these same conglomerates make piles of money presenting endless talk shows in Urdu on the channels they own, but have not done much to provide anything on the same channels that could possibly reflect the moderate posture of their English publications. They know what sells, and in what language.

But perhaps I am barking up the wrong tree. It may be more accurate to assert that the ‘Anglophone’ population in Lahore, Karachi and Islamabad prefers it that way. Who are these ‘Anglophones?’ The people who quickly switch to English when after starting a serious conversation in Urdu, seldom buy and then read an Urdu newspaper, and prefer to look with disdain at what they may perchance see in Urdu—’Just some more backward thinking.’—rather than take it as seriously as any scribbling from the English language sister journals of the same Urdu dailies. As I wrote I tried to recall some serious engagement with Urdu columnists in any English newspaper of Pakistan, but nothing came to mind. I hope I am wrong.

On the other hand, to see how juvenile a view ‘Anglophone’ Pakistanis take of what is published in Urdu newspapers just check the section, ‘Nuggets from the Urdu Press,’ in any issue of The Friday Times. This week’s (Dec. 19, 2014) issue contains a dozen or so such ‘nuggets.’ The shortest is titled, ‘Widower runs away on the day of second marriage,’ and reads: ‘According to Nai Baat (November 26, 2014), a widower and father of three ran away from his home in Narang Mandi on the day of his second marriage. He was caught from Lahore, where he said he was joking about wanting to get married again, only to see if someone would give him their daughter. A panchayat seized his tractor and trolley when he failed to pay a Rs. 1 million fine.’ Giggle, giggle!

Never mind that Nai Baat is generally considered to be the paper of preference for the ‘enlightened’ and ‘liberal’ supporters of the Jama’at-e Islami, and should be taken as seriously as The Friday Times, if not more so, where the political, intellectual and cultural future of the country is on the table.



An Urdu version of the above is available at Tanqeed.

Saudi Arabia is a kingdom, and has had several Kings during the last 100 years, but it does not have a ‘Shahi Imam’, nor had one before. Even the men who lead the prayers at the Ka’ba in Mecca are simply known as Imams. Pakistan has had no king so far, but it has the great Badshahi Mosque in Lahore. It too has only Imams, and they, regardless of any other delusion of grandeur that some could have entertained, have remained content with the simpler title. Compared to the Saudi Kingdom and the Islamic Republic, India stands tall—in fact taller than most of us think, for it has four ‘Shahi Imams’. And that’s the four I know of. Someone more diligent might yet find a few more.

The nation’s capital, not surprisingly, is blessed with two: Mr Syed Ahmad Bukhari at the Jama Masjid, and Dr Mufti Mukarram Ahmad at the Fatehpuri Mosque. The first mosque was indeed built by a Shah, but the second was not. It was built by Fatehpuri Begum, one of Shahjahan’s many wives, and so its Imam is technically only a ‘Begumi Imam’. But who wants to be called that?

Kolkata has our third ‘Shahi Imam’. The city, in its previous incarnation as Calcutta, had indeed been British India’s capital for decades, but neither George III nor Queen Victoria built an imperial mosque there. Mr Nurur Rahman Barkati claims his title by virtue of leading prayers in a mosque that was built by Tipu Sultan’s sons during their stay in the city as virtual prisoners. Since Tipu never designated himself a Shah, Mr. Barkati can at best call himself a ‘Sultani Imam’, but, obviously, he wouldn’t get as much mileage out of it.

By now you might be expecting to visit Lucknow to meet the fourth ‘Shahi Imam’—after all the later Nawabs of Oudh had themselves anointed as ‘Badshah’ by the British. But there is no Shahi Imam in Lucknow. Even the Imam of the major Shi’ah mosque in the city does not claim that title. No, dear reader, our fourth ‘Shahi Imam’ resides in Ludhiana, Punjab, that city humming with productive energy of every kind. Mr Habibur Rahman, however, is unique; he claims to be the ‘Shahi Imam’ of not just Ludhiana but all of Punjab. (Does his Punjab also include the areas that are now parts of Haryana and Himachal Pradesh, not to mention Pakistan? I can’t say.) Mr. Rahman is also the President of a political party, the Ahrar, long defunct everywhere except in Ludhiana. Since last year, his followers have also started calling him Sher-i-Islam (The Lion of Islam), for, like some Sikh leaders, he likes to carry a sword when making appearances in public. Much to my shame I don’t know what Shah bestowed upon his ancestor that title, though I hope it was not Ahmad Shah Abdali.

So here we are with four ‘Shahi Imams’ in one republic, a secular one at that. Mera Bharat is indeed mahaan.

My least favourite is the savant of Kolkota. From what little of him I have seen or read on the Internet, I get the impression that his range of words and ideas is rather limited. Always ready to ‘deal’ with anyone who dares to question his actions within the precincts of his mosque, he is also a gourmand and believes that for Muslims to invite people like him to a feast or festive gathering is the same as extending an invitation to the Prophet. During the recent elections he threw his weight around in Bengal politics, and consequently may have lost some of his clout.

The most irascible of the four has to be the savant of Ludhiana. The ‘Lion of Islam’ is always ready to wave his sword and threaten the Ahmadi Muslims of India. He regards them as not only outside the pale of Islam but also tools of a vast ‘Jewish’ conspiracy against Islam and India. Last year, when a prominent Muslim educationist and scholar accepted an invitation from the Ahmadis in Qadian, the ‘Lion of Islam’ declared that she had ‘ruined her faith and injured the hearts of all Muslims’, and threatened to have fatwas issued against her if she didn’t give a satisfactory explanation ‘within three days’. Since the threat appeared only in the Urdu press, no brouhaha followed. Earlier his range was restricted to Punjab, but lately he has gained many friends and supporters in the South, in particular in Andhra/Telengana, where Barkati too has been on occasion an honoured guest of the Owaisis. Thankfully, most politicians in Punjab have so far ignored him, but one never knows what a ‘leader’ desperate to win might do.

The more educated of the four might seem to be the savant of the Fatehpuri Mosque. But education and common sense are not synonymous. Recently a seminar was held at the Jamia Hamdard in New Delhi under the auspices of the Dept. of Islamic Studies where the chief guest was our Dr Mufti Mukarram Ahmad. In his keynote speech, he cast light on ‘the scientific facts described in the Qur’an’, and announced that what science now knew concerning human embryo formation had already been described in the Qur’an centuries ago. Incidentally, a Mr Harun Yahya has recently made a similar claim about the nature and function of cartilage in human bone structure. What the two champions of Qr’anic science do not bother to ask themselves are such simple questions as ‘Why nearly 13 centuries had to pass before that scientific knowledge became known to the world?’ or ‘Why that epiphany about the alleged similarity was alleged first in France and then in Canada but not in some so-called Muslim country?’ Apparently, Allah revealed all scientific verities in the Qur’an to the people of East but left it to the people in the West to discover them many centuries later without the help of the Qur’an!

That brings us to the fourth, and hopefully the final, ‘Shahi Imam’: Mr. Syed Ahmad Bukhari of the Delhi Jama Masjid. He could be the most delusional of the four, and also the most successful in his delusions—at least so far. Last week, Bukhari anointed his heir, and, while extending an invitation to the Prime Minister of Pakistan, pointedly did not invite the Prime Minister of India. The press, of course, fell for the bait. The event would have gone unnoticed by everyone, but not anymore. Some are saying it was an insult to India, but I say it was an insult to Pakistan. In fact it was rubbing salt into the wounds—since Pakistan has no ‘Shahi Imam’ of its own.

Let’s face it. India heard of the Bukharis only after Sanjay Gandhi launched his scheme to ‘clean up’ Old Delhi, in particular the area around the Jama Masjid, and in the process threatened the livelihood of any number of hawkers and traders who gave that area its colour and hustle and bustle, and who had long been a major source of income and authority to the Bukharis. Then came the end of the Emergency and election time—and the rise of the Bukharis in politics. It has been a rough ride. Plenty of ups and downs. But Mr Bukhari deserves credit for never giving up. He has been a true heir to his father—despite what Azam Khan might say.


According to the reports published in the Urdu newspapers Rashtriya Sahara and Sahafat, Mr Bukhari presents the story of his family as follows. After the Jama Masjid was completed the Emperor wrote to the King of Bukhara and asked him to send some ‘alim or learned man who was also ‘mystically inclined’ to lead the prayers in his great mosque. The King of Bukhara sent him his own son-in-law named Syed Abdul Ghafur Shah, and it was this gentleman who led the prayers when the Emperor Shahjahan performed an Eid prayer in it for the first time in July 1656. After the prayers, the report claims, the Emperor enrobed Syed Abdul Ghafur and gave him the title: Imam-al-Saltanat (Imam of the Realm).

Since the reports do not refer to any historical source I imagine the story is a family lore, and was supplied by Mr Bukhari. Some of it could be true. Non-Arab Muslim kings often had their daughters married to some Syed in order to avoid the ‘shame’ of giving her to someone of their own race but necessarily lower in rank to them. And since Shahjahan’s empire at one time extended up to Balkh in Central Asia it is also quite possible that he made a request to the ruler of Bukhara—the hometown of the revered Imam Muhammad al-Bukhari—for some worthy man.

As everyone knows, Delhi was not Shahjahan’s original capital; it was Agra. Nor was it ever his only capital, for Lahore was also counted as one. In fact, from Akbar to Aurangzeb, the Mughals had at least three different ‘capitals’ simultaneously. Both Lahore and Agra have major mosques, but neither has a ‘Shahi Imam’. Even in Delhi, before the Jama Masjid was finished, the Emperor often went out to the Eidgah for the two major annual prayers. Someone must have done the duty of an Imam at those prayers. He is also recorded to have prayed at many Eids at the mosque built by another wife, Akbarabadi Begum. Someone must have led the prayers there. In other words, Shahjahan did not have a particular ‘Shahi Imam’ who tagged along with him to lead the prayers wherever his campaigns took him. He had many Imams.

Syed Ahmad Khan wrote a remarkable book in 1847 about his Delhi entitled Asar-al-Sanadid. He has much to say about the Jama Masjid, but nothing about its Imam. The only mention comes when he refers to a lane called Imam ki Gali close to the Jama Masjid. This is what he writes: is kuche men qadim se imam jama masjid ka makan hai aur ISI sabab imam ki gali mashhur hai, ‘Since old times the house of the Imam of the Jama Masjid has been in this lane, and that’s why it is known as Imam ki Gali’. Just plain old ‘Imam’s Lane’. His description of the lane takes up only two lines. Immediately after it he spends ten lines describing a shop at the mouth of the lane, the shop of Ghazi Bharbhunja (one who sold parched grains). At the end of the same book he devotes many pages describing the most important scholars, Sufis, poets and physicians of the city. No Bukhari finds mention in those pages. Apparently both ‘ilm and tasavvuf had long disappeared from the descendents of the first Bukhari Imam.

Things had not changed in 1894, when Hakim Abdul Hai, father of the late Maulvi Ali Miyan of Nadwah, visited Delhi and wrote an account of his stay there. He visited the Jama Masjid, and prayed there at least twice, including a Friday prayer, but has nothing to say about the Imam. Apparently the person was not known for any learning or spiritual status. He too mentions Imam ki Gali, since he passed through it on his way elsewhere. He describes how preachers from four different Muslim sects harangued people after Friday prayers inside the precincts of the Jama Masjid, and how the Nawab of Bahawalpur was getting repairs done to the portions of the great mosque that had been damaged by lightning that year. But nowhere is any mention of a ‘Shahi Imam’.

‘Amal-i-Salih a.k.a. Shahjahan Nama is a reliable history of the Emperor’s times. It mentions the construction of the city and the subsequent inauguration of the mosque but makes no mention of the mosque’s Imam, ‘Shahi’ or otherwise. More usefully, it lists at the end all the dignitaries or mansab-holders of the time. The lowest mansab was titled pan-sadi (i.e. with income from the royal treasury or grant sufficient for the maintenance of 500 foot-soldiers. That was the way things were done in those days.) The list contains 180 names—in descending order of importance—under that category, and the name of one Syed Abdul Ghafur occurs just about in the middle. So, yes, the man from Bukhara got the appointment, as claimed, and was also treated reasonably well by the Emperor, but that was that. There was no special status or title.

In fact, the claim made by Mr Bukhari that Shahjahan named his ancestor Imam-al-Saltanat is bewildering, even laughable, unless he has a document to prove it. Shahjahan was a Badshah and not a Sultan, and rather finicky in such matters. A brief check did not turn up any title of his time that included the word saltanat.


Be that as it may, what is certainly laughable is the claim made in those same published reports that the Imam of Jama Masjid used to perform ‘the tajposhi of the Mughal kings’. As if the so-called ‘Shahi Imam’ was also an ‘Archbishop of Canterbury’ for the Mughals! To begin with, since Akbar’s time no Mughal king, except the last two, wore a crown, and those two were fairly Anglicized when it came to presenting their royal visage to the public. Just look at the surviving portraits. All Mughal Emperors from Akbar to Shah Alam II are always wearing a turban. Only Akbar II and Bahadur Shah II are shown wearing something that could be called a crown or taj. (The other taj-wearers were the equally pretentious Nawabs of Oudh, beginning with Ghaziuddin Haidar.)

Could it be that the Bukhari family lore mentions a position of ‘turban-tying’? My betters will correct me but I think such daily tasks as enrobing the Emperor, holding his mirror, or tying his turban were regularly assigned to various dignitaries, and Syed Abdul Ghafur could have been one among the many turban-tiers that Shahjahan had. A prestigious enough position. In fact, I too would be a tiny bit proud had some ancestor of mine held such a position. But I wouldn’t turn him into an Indian ‘Archbishop of Canterbury’. Foolish I am, but not delusional, at least to that degree.

The phenomenon of an ordinary Imam turning himself into a  ‘Shahi Imam’ is easily accountable. What is still known as Dabal ka Mitha in Hyderabad was turned into Shahi Tukre in Lucknow. Check the menus at fancy restaurants and you will find some simple daal turned into Shahi daal. A sad looking sign on the road from Lucknow to Barabanki points to an equally sad King George English Medium School. South Asian academics once added ‘Dr.’ to their names if they had done a PhD but otherwise were content with ‘Professor’ or ‘Mr.’. Now many come with calling cards describing them as ‘Professor Doctor’, even if they were not trained in Germany. This desire to gild a lily—or a cauliflower, for that matter—is understandable, but why has it afflicted at least four Indian Imams in this manner but not any of their peers in Pakistan and Bangladesh? And why do so many Muslims in India go along with these pretensions? Could it be that in Pakistan and Bangladesh most Muslims have got rid of that old syndrome of pidram sultan bud a.k.a ‘We ruled here for centuries’, and now feel no need to attach themselves to an imaginary imperial past except perhaps in matters of café cuisine? A syndrome that unfortunately may still be found expressed frequently enough in India, though more mutely than before, in the pages of many Urdu newspapers and journals. Equally unfortunately, it is then reinforced by the clamour of those who persist in believing that they became independent only yesterday, ‘after 800 years of subjugation’.



Originally published—with additional images—in on November 26, 2014.



Our Ungenerous Little World of Urdu Studies


The final issue of The Annual of Urdu Studies came out last week. When I got my subscription copy I put it aside after glancing through the table of contents. There was nothing that demanded immediate reading. But some hours later came an anguished email from an old friend: ‘Did you see the lead article in the current AUS by Tehsin Firaqi? I’m not qualified to judge many of the details (as far as I can tell, Fran’s choices were mostly justifiable), but it is written with incredible, hurtful animus, not only against Fran but also against any “non-native” who might dare to intrude upon the study of Urdu. What do you make of it? Why is the little world of Urdu studies so ungenerous?’

I had to stop what I was doing and read the article. It is titled: ‘The English Translation of Ab-e Hayat: A Review Article.’ Its author, Dr. Tehsin Firaqi, is a senior Pakistani scholar. After a distinguished career at the University of the Punjab he is currently the Director of the Majlis-e Taraqqi-e Adab, Lahore, an institution preeminent in publishing carefully prepared editions of Urdu’s canonical literary texts. I soon discovered that my friend’s anguish was not misplaced. It was not an academic essay but a nasty hatchet job. The author’s vehemently aggressive tone shocked me, for having met him twice and read a few of his writings I had always considered him a reasonable person. Equally shocking was the fact of its publication in the final issue of a cherished journal, thirteen years after the book came out. My friend was right: the article was a shrill tirade exclusively directed against Prof. Frances Pritchett, the principal author of the book under discussion, even though she had done both the editing and translation in association with Mr. Shamsur Rahman Faruqi. And why does Firaqi so privilege her? Because she happens to be a ‘non-native.’

Firaqi begins with a bald statement: ‘Though the translation was made and edited “in association with Shamsur Rahman Faruqi,” a distinguished Urdu critic, I tend to think that he played only a minor role in the enterprise….”[1] He then states his intention to substantiate that claim with examples that follow. However, he first gives two examples of what he considers to be perspicuous and superb translations, adding that similar passages are ‘liberally sprinkled’ throughout the book. He then makes another bald assertion: ‘These sections may indeed have benefited enormously from Faruqi’s extensive linguistic knowledge, his extraordinary translation skills, and his profound cultural insights. It is highly unlikely that Faruqi could in any way be responsible for some of the glaring errors found in other parts, where the translation lapses into sheer travesty and seriously damages its literary value.’

Now if that were indeed the case, and if that is all that bothers Firaqi, he should at least lay a charge of negligence, deliberate or otherwise, against Faruqi, the man with ‘extraordinary translation skill.’ Apparently, some days, he just didn’t do his job and let Pritchett get away with ‘travesty.’ Firaqi does not offer any explanation why an arguably reasonable person like Faruqi would be so callously irresponsible. He is more eager to make a third claim. ‘Pritchett cannot be expected,’ Firaqi declares, ‘to fully comprehend the cultural context of Urdu in a wider semantic perspective and to properly evaluate the linguistic complexities and stylistic innovations native to it. As a result, some specific Urdu cultural devices, linguistic niceties and idiomatic turns of phrase seem to evade her. Her reach is necessarily limited, while the arcane civilization of the Subcontinent and the essence of its poetic language are too lofty to be fully grasped by a non-native.’

In other words: every success goes to the credit of the ‘native,’ but all failures accrue to the ‘non-.’
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