Getting Killed in Urdu in Pakistan

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.

Why do they do it?


Why do they do it?


Abdulqadir Hasan, a senior columnist with the Urdu Daily Express, recently wished to chide Prime Minister Nawaz Sahrif concerning what Hasan thought had been a fruitless trip to the United States. So he began by talking about the clothes that the P.M. and his entourage wore during that trip. Too many suits, too many new neckties, Hasan sneered. Learn from the Americans, he thundered. According to Hasan, President Obama also wore a similar outfit, but that black suit was “probably Obama’s only suit.” He then went on: “A little while back, when an American President named Reagan got shot at, the Security people went into a panic state.  But the wounded President kept asking only about the suit he was wearing. It was his only suit. The head of the richest country in the world makes do with just one suit, but that is not for us.”

Never mind that Ronald Reagan, a rich film star before he turned to politics, was always a dandy dresser, and wore only bespoke suits made by a tailor in Hollywood.

Javed Chaudhry, equally prominent, also writes in the Daily Express. Not too long ago he decided to comment on the state of “governance” in Pakistan. His thesis: when a state’s writ disappears the state itself soon disappears. He opened with a long reminder of the fate of the last Mughal Emperor, ending with a grand flourish before finally turning to contemporary Pakistan. There were six thousand soldiers with Bahadur Shah, Chaudhry declared, when Captain Hodson arrived at Humayun’s Tomb with only 90 soldiers. But the Emperor readily surrendered “his ancestors’ swords” to save his own life. And then “the ninety troopers of Hodson disarmed those six thousand Mughal soldiers and marched them back to the Red Fort. And there in the open, they hanged them one by one. Only those men survived for whom no rope was readily available to the gora force.”

Never mind if execution by hanging does not require a change of rope with every victim, or that Hodson could have as easily used a firing squad on the remaining few as was being done elsewhere in Delhi.

Dr. Safdar Mahmood, a most senior columnist, writes in the daily Jang. Recently he desired to inform his admirers that what mattered in human actions was jazba (emotion; sentiment). Let’s ignore that Iqbal had more profoundly expressed the same, invoking the concept of ‘ishq (passion). Let’s simply follow Dr. Mahmood, who opened his column thus: “The fact of the matter is that without jazba nothing great can be achieved in life, and no great service can one do to one’s community…. When, considering the leaders of the recent past, I seek an example for jazba Sir Syed Ahmad Khan lights my way….” He then gives several examples of Sir Syed’s all-consuming devotion to the cause of his college, ending with this anecdotal flourish: “Once he was trying to raise funds at a public meeting but the audience was not attentive. So he said, ‘When you go to enjoy a mujra you empty your pockets, but you give me the cold shoulder while I speak of the community’s cause.’ A wit in the audience shouted: ‘We’d empty our pockets for you too if you performed a mujra.’ Sir Syed, with his venerable white beard, immediately tucked his shirt into his shalwar and started dancing. What do you think then happened? People took out whatever money they had in their pockets and put it in Sir Syed’s hands.”

Never mind that aside from there being no record of such an incident in any biography of Sir Syed, the men who wear shalwars never tuck their shirts inside when they dance, for that would be considered obscene.

Orya Maqbool Jan, another stalwart, writes for the daily Dunya. Concerned about the rate of literacy in Pakistan, he recently wrote a piece based on a 2012 UNESCO report that suggested that the cohort of Pakistanis between the ages of 25 and 44 had a higher percentage of illiterates (57%) than the next older cohort of those between 45 and 54 (46%). And compared to both, the Pakistanis between the ages of 55 and 64—i.e. those born between 1948 and 1957—had the lowest number (38%).  The blame for the decline, according to Jan, lay on those who encouraged and patronized education through the medium of English—a dubious conclusion, though certainly not inane.  However, Jan couldn’t resist a grand finish: “When in 1857 the British expanded their authority over the whole of India they put into place their Western educational system in order to destroy the existing system. In 1879, Gazetteers were written for every district. They are preserved in the Punjab Archives. According to them in 1879 the percentage of literacy among Indians was 90%. When the British left this country in 1947, that rate had come down to 15%. Education in this country was first destroyed by the ‘White Angrez,’ and now the same is being done by the ‘Black Angrez.’”

Never mind that by that logic Pakistan began in 1947 with a population that was only 15% literate, and then in eight years that number more than quadrupled—thanks, no doubt, to bureaucrats like Mr. Jan—before nefarious English-lovers started the decline. 

All four pieces of writing are lively; they are well-intentioned too. So why couldn’t their authors resist concocting “facts” when there was actually no need to do so? Why couldn’t they resist making a rhetorical flourish even at the cost of truth? Is it because they believe an anecdote, even an invented one, will be more convincing to their readers than a stark statement based on rationality and logic? Or is it simply because they know they can do it—that they can get away with anything in Pakistan so long it is in Urdu?



Re my comment above concerning Mr. Jan, I’ve been made aware of a confusion on my part. What he apparently meant to say was that of the people born between 1948 and 1957 62% became ‘literate’—not educated, merely literate—by 2012—i.e. over a period of 65 years.

Readers can draw their own conclusions about progress/decline and the achievements of the educational bureaucracy. (3 February 2014)







Another Lesson in History


Another Lesson in History


Mr. Javed Chaudhry is a fairly experienced Urdu columnist in Pakistan. Presently he writes a column titled ‘Zero Point’ in the Daily Express. For all I know, he may also be anchoring some T.V. talk show owned by the Express Group. He has however published several volumes of his evidently very popular columns. A few days back he decided to write on the present abysmal state of governance in Pakistan and the proposed talks with the Taliban. A noble and timely task. But then he decided to open his column with a reminder of the fate of the last Mughal Emperor—to underscore his argument that when a state’s writ disappears the state itself soon disappears ignominiously. The column, sub-titled Mazākarāt se Pahle ‘Before the Talks,’ appeared in the Daily Express of September 17, 2013. Here is my translation of its ‘Historical’ prelude, a tour de force by any measure of rhetoric and fantasy.

“Captain Hodson was in charge of the operation. The last Mughal Emperor was alive. Twenty-five crore Indians held him in honor. But Hodson knew that though the State existed, the Emperor with his Prime Minister and advisors was present and the Mughal currency was still the coin of the realm, the ‘writ’ of the State did not exist. The Police had become ‘dysfunctional,’ the army had no life in it, and decades had passed since the country’s judicial system had breathed its last. People, first of all, didn’t go to the courts to seek justice, and if they perforce did then the judges took five or ten years to decide the case. And then, if a decision was announced no one put it into effect. The posts in the administration were auctioned off to the higher bidder. If you wished to become the Kotwal, then you contacted Mirza Mughal and made him an offering to get the job. If you wished to become a Munshi or Mir Munshi, then you had to contact the junior prince, Mirza Khizar and place a bag of gold coins in front of him. If you were someone powerful, you could go out riding in the city, kill a score of people, and then come home safe and secure. No one could touch you. But if you were powerless and poor, then death was your fate anyway. You died, whether due to indigence or under the hooves of the Turkish horse of some prince or government officers. It didn’t matter.

“Captain Hodson knew that when a state had become that powerless, even an army of millions couldn’t save the country. And that is exactly what happened on 22 September 1857. At the final moments of that War of Independence, the Emperor took refuge in Humayun’s Tomb. The princes were with him, as were six thousand soldiers and heavy artillery. The six thousand were ready to lay down their lives for the Emperor, but Hodson knew that if the Commander were weak and unwilling to take up arms personally then even the most loyal soldier would walk away from him. And so Hodson did something strange. He took only three native soldiers with him, and rode his horse to Humayun’s Tomb. The aged Emperor, sick and indolent from opiates, was standing, leaning on a staff. He was so weak that his shoulders could not bear the weight of the royal robes nor could his head bear the weight of the Timurid crown. The great state of Hindustan had collapsed at its own feet (sic).

“Hodson ‘presented’ himself before the Emperor, bowed and offered his ‘salaam,’ then made this offer: ‘If you surrender to me I guarantee the lives of you and your queen.’ The last Mughal Emperor, Bahadur Shah Zafar, was then 82. He was up to his waist in his grave but his lust for life compelled him to make the deal. He pulled out his two swords from their sheaths, and handed them over to Captain Hodson. One was the sword that Nadir Shah Durrani had presented to Emperor Muhammad Shah before returning to Iran; the second was the sword that had belonged to Jahangir and was traditionally given to a Mughal Emperor at his coronation. Hodson took the two swords, and walked out triumphantly. When the six thousand loyal soldiers saw the swords in Hodson’s hands they lost all will. They could see their own future in the Emperor’s swords.

“Hodson went and deposited the swords in the office of the Company Sircar, then took one hundred native soldiers and returned with them to Humayun’s Tomb. He then set ninety soldiers to that task of disarming the six thousand Mughal soldiers. The remaining ten he took with him and arrested the two sons of the Emperor, Mirza Mughal and Mirza Khizar, and influential grandson, Mirza Abu Bakr. Placing the princes in an open buggy, he set out in Delhi. The people of Delhi followed. Within moments there were four thousand spectators walking behind the royal buggy. But not one man dared to raise a cry in support of the princes. The procession reached the Kotwali. Hodson ordered the princes to step out of the carriage and take off their clothes. They stood naked before four thousand people when Hodson shot them dead and walked away leaving their naked corpses in the dirt.

“The corpses of the three princes remained lying by the road for three days and vultures and beasts tore into them, but in the entire city of Delhi not one man dared to take the corpses away for burial and prayers. Meanwhile, the ninety troopers of Hodson disarmed those six thousand Mughal soldiers and marched them back to the Red Fort. There in the open, they hanged them one by one. Only those survived for whom no ready rope was available to the ‘gora’ force. Bahadur Shah Zafar’s two swords are still with the English Royal Family, and tell the owners every day that when a state becomes weak then kings surrender to just three enemy soldiers, despite having six thousand soldiers standing by. Hodson’s ten soldiers also proved that if the state had no life in it then only ten soldiers could force princes to strip, and then shoot them down in front of four thousand spectators. And the ninety soldiers of the British army sent a clear message to all the conquerors in the world that if a state had no strength in it then six thousand fully armed soldiers would throw down arms before ninety enemy soldiers, and then lose their lives instead of gaining safety.”

Whenever I read such ‘historical’ accounts, and it is sadly too often, my first impulse is to wonder: do Pakistani Urdu newspapers have editors and sub-editors? Or do they have only wealthy and privileged owners, with hordes of cowering minions, and a changing stable of fantasizing columnists? Some of the latter seem equally privileged, for many often describe the meals and trips they enjoy with assorted bigwigs of Pakistan. One of them, Abdul Qadir Hasan, only this week wrote a column on poverty in Pakistan by describing why his three domestic servants were not going home for the Eid—they could have more ‘meaty’ meals at his house!

Returning to the history lesson offered by Mr. Javed Chaudhry (henceforward JC), let me begin by pointing out that when the British took Delhi in 1803, the city was held by the Marathas, while the Fort itself was held by their French allies. Emperor Shah Alam, blinded by Ghulam Qadir Rohilla in revenge for having been castrated by the Emperor earlier, had no say either in the Fort or in the walled city. Forget the rest of the country. The Mughals had along ago been abandoned by their erstwhile nobles who quickly had made their own fortunes. The most prominent being Nizamul Mulk and his descendents in Hyderabad and Burhanul Mulk and his descendents in Avadh. Neither cared a hoot what happened to the Emperor. In fact, the Emperor was delighted when the British moved in, for they gave him more money than the Marathas had. From 1803 onward, it was the British who governed Delhi. The Emperor was in name alone; he had no army or police, not to mention judges and magistrates. And his ‘writ’ was limited to the Red Fort, and that too in compliance with the Resident’s wish.

Bahadur Shah Zafar was not his father’s favorite. He gained the throne because the British forced upon his father their own rule of primogeniture. JC should recall that the traditional Mughal system was to kill all rivals, as it happened from Jahangir to Farrukhsiyar, when the noble in power started choosing the Emperor. And the first thing any new Emperor did was to make sure the possible rivals were killed, blinded, or held in house arrest. Actually, in the good old days, Zafar would have got rid of both Mirza Mughal and Mirza Khizar, for he wanted Jawan Bakht, the son from his favorite Zeenat Mahal, to be his heir. Not to the throne but to whatever the British were in the mood to give. The two princes made a bid for fortune during the Ghadar, and were despised by those who were doing the fighting. Prior to 1857, they had no say even in the Fort. The walled city was governed by the British. The Kotwal who sent Ghalib to jail for gambling was an employee of the British, and not of the Emperor.

Coming to the events of September 1857, here is what William Dalrymple tells us in his The Last Mughal: The Fall of a Dynasty: Delhi 1857 (New York, 2007). No doubt some would call him a ‘Gora Kafir,’ but he also happens to be a meticulous scholar and quite sympathetic to Zafar. According to Dalrymple, Zafar, with members of his immediate family and some retainers, had escaped from the Fort by boat and took shelter in Humayun’s tomb on the 17th of the month. The place was full of soldiers—around three hundred—and civilians who had fled there with the same aim.  On the 21st, Hodson went there with a small contingent of native soldiers—they were probably Muslims and Sikhs from Punjab—and got Zafar out of the tomb complex. Hodson himself did not go inside; the Emperor rode out in a chariot—with the help of Hakim Ahsanullah Khan, Mirza Elahi Bakhsh, and Maulvi Rajab Ali. Hodson delivered the Emperor to the freshly established British civilian administration, and the Emperor and Zeenat Mahal were confined to quarters within the Fort. The next day, Hodson went to Humayun’s Tomb, and with his Indian helpers got the three princes to surrender. There were several hundred jihadis in the tomb at the time, plus hundreds more of ordinary men, women, and children. There were three hundred or so more jihadis not too far away in Basti Nizamuddin. (Dalrymple’s total of six hundred became six thousand in JC’s piece.) But no soldier made any effort to challenge Hodson on either day, nor did any civilian. The three princes were killed in cold blood by Hodson, at a place now known as the Khuni Darwaza. And yes, they were stripped naked before they were killed. The corpses were then taken to the Kotwali in Chandni Chowk and cast on the ground for display. Three days later they were buried in unmarked graves. No soldier was taken into custody at Humayun’s Tomb and marched back to the city to be hanged from the gallows.

What happened at the tomb complex on two days clearly indicates the low esteem in which the Emperor and the princes were held by most of the civilians and soldiers who had sought shelter there. There was no issue of the Emperor’s writ, for the poor man never had any, not even within the Red Fort. And many of the elite and clergy of Delhi held him in much contempt before 1857 for his peccadilloes and his inclination towards Shi’ism.

JC should read Hasan Nizami and Rashidul Khairi again—they don’t indulge in his fantasies—if he cannot be bothered to read Dalrymple, or Mahmood Farooqui’s Beseiged: Voices from Delhi, 1857 (New Delhi, 2010), an invaluable selection (translated) from the Mutiny Papers in the National Archive of India. He may be right about the two swords and their identities, but he is dead wrong when he talks of a Timurid crown. The first Mughal king to wear a crown was Zafar’s father, Akbar II; Zafar imitated him. And both had imitated the British practice, as had the Nawabs of Avadh when the British made them Kings. The Mughals in India, from Akbar onward had worn only turbans decorated with jewels and crests.

Finally, the British couldn’t have run out of ropes while hanging people. After all, the same rope and knot is commonly used over and over again. Of course, reality does not make for the rhetorical effect JC most desires. And so fantasy triumphs over reality.


(September 19, 2013)



A Matter of History

 C. M. Naim

A Matter of History

A few weeks ago I came upon a blog essay in the Express-Tribune entitled, ‘Allama Muhammad Asad: The First Citizen of Pakistan.’ Its passion and concern for intellectual growth in Pakistan touched me. It also left me worried about the state of intellectual pursuits among young Pakistanis. The writer, Osama Sajid, a student of Economics at LUMS, had not bothered to mention any source for the claims he had resoundingly made. However, later in the comments, he acknowledged that his essay was almost entirely based on certain writings of Orya Maqbool Jan. It only increased my consternation.

According to the Wiki, Orya Maqbool Jan (henceforward OMJ) is ‘a columnist, writer, poet and civil servant from Pakistan.’ Additionally, he has served ‘as director general to Sustainable Development of the Walled City Project in Lahore and as executive director ECO, Cultural Institute, Tehran and information secretary to the government of the Punjab.Jan is also a member of the National Academic Council of the Institute of Policy Studies, Islamabad.’  OMJ’s columns are always cheerfully edifying. Not too long ago he was all for reintroducing the gold standard, to the extent even of using only coins made of gold and silver.  Then there have been his frequent reports on the many signs of an imminent Doomsday, the emergence of a mysterious jogi from the caves in the Himalayas, and the promised final conquest of India by the Muslims of Pakistan, Afghanistan and Syria.

Thanks to his fans, OMJ’s columns, both present and past, are available on the Internet in the original Urdu as well as an English translation. It made it easy to trace down the writings that had made such an impression on Mr. Sajid. They consist of three linked essays, entitled, ‘Hamārī Tārīkh ke Dardnāk Aurāq (Tragic Pages of Our History), published (in Express?) on March 14, 17 and 21, 2012.

What had caught my attention most in Mr. Sajid’s piece was the following:

In the Indian subcontinent, ‘madrassas’ were the only educational institutes present [before the arrival of the British] and their significance was that they used to teach religion and worldly subjects side by side. In most cases, there were more courses on the world than on religion, ranging from medicine, pure sciences, logic, philosophy, languages and mathematics to astrology. Before the arrival of Muslims in the subcontinent, such institutes were only present in Taxilla, belonging to Buddhists and they used to focus more on Buddhism with only a marginal presence of material subjects.

An important point to note is that it was the students of these madrassas who went up that ladder of success hardly achieved by others. The reason was their diverse knowledge base, comprising of both worldly knowledge and teachings of Islam, which used to complement the study of the material world. …

History shows that it was an Englishman named Warren Hastings, who in 1781 established a ‘madrassa’ in Calcutta for purely religious studies. This was a turning point, when religious and worldly education was separated, in an attempt to weaken our strong scholastic base.

Sir Syed Ahmed Khan, after founding the famous Aligarh University, came to a conclusion that religious and worldly education must be taught simultaneously. It was upon his insistence that the first reciprocal exchange program of India was established. Students from Aligarh were sent to ‘Darul Uloom Deoband’ of Sheikh Mahmoodul Hassan and their students came to Aligarh. The importance of this mix of education can be judged from the fact that it was compulsory for students to take part in this exchange program, without which they would not be granted degrees.

The last paragraph, in particular puzzled me, for it was too preposterous to have been invented by a young student.

Here (in my translation) is what OMJ wrote in Urdu in the second installment published on March 17 last year:

The introduction of religious education separate from a general worldly education was also a tragic page of our history. In the madrassas that existed in the subcontinent before the coming of the British the two syllabi were taught side by side. In fact, you will find that the courses of worldly education were more in number than those for religious education. In re Religion, there were the usual few topics related to the Quran and some chapters of Hadith, whereas the rest of the instruction given was devoted to Arabic, Persian, Philosophy, Logic, Medicine, Astronomy—[For some reason, OMJ coins his own word ‘Falakiyat’, instead of using the usual Hī’at.]—Arithmetic, Algebra, and Poetry together with Morphology and Syntax. We find in the subcontinent no trace of a school where these subjects were taught before the coming of the Muslims, except for one, the Buddhist school at Taxila. But there too the teachings of Buddha loomed larger over other subjects. There was a network of madrassas across the subcontinent, and the people educated in them ran the affairs of the state. They occupied highest government jobs, became historians and literature, and ranked as doctors and teachers. The tragic aspect is that the first, purely religious, madrassa was established by the British at Calcutta. And in contrast to it, they created a college for worldly education. Now the graduates from the latter began to get the state jobs, while those from the religious madrassa got confined to the four walls of mosques. …. Our Ulama became so contented with the confines of the mosques that they turned them into their own fiefdoms…. It was with reference to such conditions that Iqbal had said:

mullā ko jo masjid meñ hai sajde kī ijāzat

       nādāñ ye samajhtā hai ki islām hai āzād

The Mulla is permitted to prostrate in the mosque

And so he thinks Islam is free in India.

While the madrassas in mosques continued to change in imitation of the purely religious madrassa set up by the British, Sir Syed Ahmad Khan established Aligarh—[i.e. the M.A.O. College]. Then another man of vision recognized the danger. He was Shaikh Mahmudul Hasan (sic) of Deoband. He started a lengthy correspondence with Sir Syed, with the result that an arrangement was made between Deoband and Aligarh. Anyone getting a degree from Aligarh would come to Deoband for further instruction, and similarly no one graduating from Deoband would get his degree until he had received the [required] instruction at Aligarh. In 1904, Shaikh Mahmudul Hasan (sic) set up scholarships worth Rs. 15/- per month for any student from Deoband to study English at Aligarh. This was the first exchange program for Muslim students in India. It lasted for a while, but then the bossmen of worldly education at Aligarh and the monopolists of religious education [at Deoband] did not let it survive.

It’s true that the old madrassas taught both the manqūlāt—what OMJ would call purely religious—and ma’qūlāt—what he considers purely worldly. But it was not that Astronomy and Mathematics were taught as subjects in the modern accepted sense. Everything, both religious and worldly, was taught in terms of specific books that seldom if ever changed. Teachers were specialists in particular books, not in subjects. The knowledge transmitted was not cumulative; it did not expand from generation to generation, as it does in modern schools and universities. Secondly, the Abbasids may have had an Indian book on Arithmetic translated from Sanskrit into Arabic, but I know of no Indian ‘ālim of the last 800 years who made any effort to gain further knowledge of Indian Mathematics or wrote a new text on the subject for use in the madrassas. For that matter, no ‘ālim in South Asia has yet written a history of Mathematics as practiced by the Muslims. Whatever claims OMJ and his ilk make in that regard are based solely on the efforts of Western scholars.

I’m glad OMJ is aware of Taxila. But he does not know—or cares to know—about Nalanda, or the lesser-known but important centers of learning in South India. Lack of knowledge—in fact, a lack of curiosity—does not, however, stop him from making authoritative statements. Yes, the Calcutta Madrassa was set up by Warren Hastings, but it was not doing anything different from what was already being done at other madrassas. And the college at Fort William was for the education of British civil servants, not Indian children. The fact of the matter is that when a later Principal of the Madrasa ‘Aliya, Dr. Aloys Sprenger, tried to introduce newer ‘worldly’ subjects, the teachers and students of the Madrasa went on strike, refusing to accept any knowledge that came from the new textbooks written in lowly Urdu—the same books that were so successful at the old Delhi College, where scholars like Mamluk Ali and Rasheeduddin Khan taught alongside Master Ram Chander and students like Zakaullah and Nazir Ahmad blossomed. OMJ, of course, does not bother to explain how just one madrassa at Calcutta could become the exclusive model for all the madrassas from Patna to Peshawar and Lahore to Arcot, particularly when there was no worldly gain involved.

OMJ’s claim that in the pre-British times people went for education to madrassas and then became professionals is simply baseless. People learned from their own elders and by apprenticing themselves to established masters. Before the British introduced it in the 1830s there was no educational degree requirement for any job. When Syed Ahmad Khan got his first job it was by becoming an umīdvār at a court, first in Delhi and then in Agra. And one of his first books was a manual that prepared students for the newly introduced test in colonial laws for the post of a Tahsildar.

Finally, we come to OMJ’s biggest fabrication: the ‘first ever exchange program for Muslim students in India,’ which came about after a ‘lengthy correspondence’ between Shaikh Mahmud Hasan and Sir Syed.

Syed Ahmad Khan died in 1898. His final decade was filled with frustrations. He had no say in the affairs of his beloved college by then, which was very much controlled by its English principals and Nawab Mohsinul Mulk, not to mention Syed Mahmud. There exists no record of any correspondence, lengthy or otherwise, between Syed Ahmad Khan and Shaikh Mahmud Hasan. Had it existed it would have been included in the invaluable two volumes of Sir Syed’s letter published from Lahore not too long ago. Further, when Syed Ahmad Khan had tried to seek Deoband’s cooperation in designing a course of religious instruction at Aligarh, none other than Maulana Qasim Nanautavi, the founder of the Darul Ulum, refused to be a part of a committee in which Shi’ah scholars were given equal presence. As for Shaikh Mahmud Hasan, no doubt he began to teach at Deoband after finishing his own studies there—he was its first student—in the 1870s while Sir Syed was still alive, he did not become its director until much later, after Maulana Rashid Ahmad Gangohi.

So what do we actually know about this ‘exchange’ program? Here is what the always dependable S. M. Ikram tells us:

The Shaikhul Hind [Maulana Mahmud Hasan] established in 1906—[eight years after Sir Syed’s death]—an organization called Jam’īyat-al-Ansār, whose sessions were also attended by Sahibzada Aftab Ahmad Khan [of Aligarh]. In that connection, an agreement was made with the Aligarh College so that those English-knowing students who wished to engage in tablīgh would go to the Darul Ulum at Deoband to do Islamic Studies, and the Darul Ulum would make special arrangements for them. Likewise, Aligarh College would make special arrangements to teach English to those who had graduated from Deoband and wished [to learn English]. (Mauj-i-Kausar, p. 203.)


According to Maulana Manazir Ahsan Gilani, the attempt was initiated by Sahibzada Aftab Ahmad Khan when he visited Deoband in 1328 A.H. (1910 A.D.). (Savānih-i-Qāsimī, vol. 2, p. 294.) That was ten years after Sir Syed’s death. In any case, OMJ’s reveling in conspiracy theory and self-pity does not allow him to consider one simple question: if Deoband and Aligarh allegedly failed, why something similar was not undertaken at Lahore, Delhi, Hyderabad, Patna, Dhaka, and hundreds of other sites of Muslim learning across the sub-continent? Or was it another colonial conspiracy?

OMJ’s claims can be best described as ‘wishful history.’ Or, to use a line from Faiz: ‘It wasn’t so; I had only wished it were so.’ Unfortunately, that habit seems to have become very common among sub-continental Muslims, particularly those who feel secure in the knowledge that no better-informed non-Muslim would read them and then raise uncomfortable questions. It was not always the case. Certainly not before 1947. Also, no Urdu newspaper then would have allowed OMJ to quote Iqbal incorrectly. The first line as Iqbal wrote it is: mullā ko jo hai hind meñ sajde kī ijāzat. The error is slight. The shame of it is the fact that a well-established Urdu newspaper in Pakistan did not have anyone on its staff who could catch the error and correct it. (The verse remains uncorrected on the Internet.)

It is depressing that an evidently earnest and sincere young person like Osama Sajid could not find a more reliable mentor than OMJ. OMJ and his kind are a lost cause, but Sajid and thousands of others like him in South Asia, male and female, are not. To them I can offer only one advice. Please take some time out to read just two books, one in English the other in Urdu, before reading anything concerning the history of Muslim South Asia published in the last four decades.

1. Studies in Islamic Culture in the Indian Environment by Aziz Ahmad, first published in 1964. In less than 300 pages it will bring to your attention all the major issues, together with a useful bibliography.

2. The three-volume intellectual history by Shaikh Muhammad Ikram—Āb-i-Kausar; Rūd-i-Kausar; Mauj-i-Kausar—whose final revised version came out in the 1960s. There is also an English version of the latter, but better to read the original.

The two books are richly informative, fair and balanced, and do not indulge in wishful inventions of the kind that OMJ and others shamelessly foist upon their readers in the name of History.

( September 11, 2013)