Intellectuals of Islam

Follow Shabnaama via email

Intizar Husain

THIS is with reference to my previous column published on July 26. Some readers have taken exception to Daud Rahbar’s statement that “the Urdu literature of the past two centuries is in some ways richer and profounder than the Persian and Arabic literature of the same period”. They doubt if it is really so.

While expressing doubt about the validity of the above-mentioned statement, it should be kept in mind that Rahbar has been acknowledged as a major scholar who specialised in comparative religion, which in consequence includes a deep study also of allied cultures and the literary traditions of the allied languages. So the statement should not be treated as a hollow assertion. It should be taken as one made by a scholar related to this field of study. I think I should briefly reproduce his line of argument in this respect.

Rahbar is of the view that Indian Islam has its own individuality and has matured as a grand tradition that can even speak of some achievements in sublimation that may be offered for emulation to Muslim nations abroad. “The great lesson to be learned by historians through a study of Indian Islam is that of a philosophy of co-existence and compatibility … this is by an alternation of assertion and yielding, exclusivism and mingling in both doctrinal and political areas. The drama became fuller with the appearance of the British nation on the scene.”

He adds “Having been recipient of cultural elements from both Arab and Ajam [Persian], Indian and Pakistani Muslims are perhaps the only non-Arab and non-Irani nations with sufficient philosophical orientation creatively to evaluate Arab and Irani traditions of Islam”.

Then he observes “there have been significant phases of spiritual renewal of the Muslims in India. In art, architecture, music, historiography and poetry, the output of the Muslims in India is great. The Sufism of India has been highly influential and the remnants of Sufi life in Iraq and even Iran owe much to the stunning devotion of the Muslim mystics of India.”

“In the 19th century,” he adds, “Sir Syed Ahmad Khan led another great movement as a messenger of Christian-Muslim friendship” and that Sir Syed was key in uniting the Orient and the Occident. Sir Syed is the solitary writer in the nearly 14 centuries of Muslim history to have written a commentary of any section of the Bible. A senior contemporary of his was Ghalib, a poet who will not fail to win a place in world literature: “In our own times Abdul Kalam Azad and Sir Mohammad Iqbal have been very original interpreters of the spirit of Islam”.

From such a record on intellectualism he concludes “The achievements of these tinkerers and reformers are magnificent, influencing the lives of millions of human beings. There is no reason why their names should not be mentioned together with the great thinkers of the Arab and Ajam.”

Continuing his thesis he says “Urdu has a rich treasure of literature that sheds light on the lives of these reformers. However, the history of Islam is not merely a record of monarchs and reformers. It is chiefly the account of common people, and therefore Urdu poetry, folklore, fiction, plays, biography, local histories, all re­present data for the study of Indian Islam”.

Such is the convincing argument from Rahber in support of his aforementioned claim. The scholar has pointed out that “it is only very recently and perhaps as a result of the birth of Pakistan that Islam of South Asia has begun to find recognition by historians of Islam in the world. Before that Islam of South Asia had received casual attention and was looked upon as a diluted, mediocre and unauthentic Islam.”

Ironically, this attitude towards South Asian Islam, as pointed out by Rahbar, was shared by Indian Muslims too: Was it because of their feelings of inferiority in the face of the Arabs and the Iranians? Perhaps this is also true in the case of Urdu literature. So when any of our intellectuals cares to read any Persian poet of today he is unconsciously under the awe of Hafiz and Saadi.

It is for the first time, and indeed this is a good omen, that a Pakistani scholar has demonstrated the courage to come out of the Arab-Ajam spell and has forcefully asserted in favour of his Indo-Islamic identity.

Intizar Husain, “Intellectuals of Islam,” in Dawn, August 2, 2015. Accessed on August 23, 2015, at:

The item above written by Intizar Husain and published in Dawn on August 2, 2015, is catalogued here in full by Faiz-e-Zabaan for non-profit educational purpose only. Faiz-e-Zabaan neither claims the ownership nor the authorship of this item. The link to the original source accessed on August 23, 2015, is available here. Faiz-e-Zabaan is not responsible for the content of the external websites.

Recent items by Intizar Husain:

Help us with Cataloguing

Leave your comments

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s