Nation, Poetry, Criticism: A Critical Tribute to Shamsur Rahman Faruqi


By Irfan Ahmad

In the death of Shamsur Rahman Faruqi (1935–2020), the literary world in general and Urdu in particular have lost a giant. One can hardly think of a figure more colossal than Faruqi in the last 30 years or so. The sheer breadth of his scholarship cut across the vast fields of prose and poetry and within many genres of each. In his book Afsāney kī ḥemāyat mēñ (1982), he was probably the first to offer a graded classification of genres – short story, novel and poetry, for instance – and the bases for their appeal. My description of Faruqi as a literary giant is not on account of high-ranking national awards he received; it is in spite of them.

Obviously, I have not read all that Faruqi wrote. However, I have examined his writing on criticism in my book Religion as Critique. While rich, igniting in some respects, I found them misleading, unpolished and crude in other respects. Given the mostly hagiographical obituaries of him, it is important to also recognize limits of Faruqi’s thought. To a literary critic that he was – he donned many other roles too – a critical tribute is only fitting. In my view, Faruqi’s scholarship on criticism was characterized by: 1) literary nationalism, 2) a dose of Westoxication and 3) dictatorship of the literary over non-literary.

My critical reflection here pertains to one aspect of Faruqi’s otherwise multifarious publications. This specific, however, offers a window to his general thoughts too about which very little, if any, is written. One should not therefore conclude that I dismiss his other works. Indeed, I regard Faruqi’s exposition on fiction and its relation with truth remarkable: an exposition I have admiringly written about. Likewise, the salience of his probing observation on the power of metaphor to constitute its own reality is relevant beyond Urdu to literary traditions as different as Hindi, Bangla or Tamil. By liberating it from the shackles of poisonous British/Western historiography in which works like Amrit Rai’s, son of the famous Munshi Premchand, had placed Urdu into, in Early Urdu Literary Culture and History (2001) Faruqi’s genealogical account of Urdu as a language, as linguist Rizwan Ahmad observes, is salutary. First, how I came to know about Faruqi.

The Encounter in Patna

Having completed grade ten from Sheohar, a sub divisional town in Bihar, in 1988, I joined B.N. College, Patna University. At that time, Patna’s famous Khuda Bakhsh Oriental Public Library was a thriving center of intellectual activity. Under the dynamic directorship of Abid Reza Bedar, the library invited well-known intellectuals for talks.

I first saw and listened to Faruqi at the Khuda Bakhsh library during his talk. For students in Patna from sleepy villages or small towns, attending such talks was quite a scholarly exposure. In case of Faruqi, there was more. A literary figure, professionally he was an IAS officer. His IAS status was attractive because the dream of us students was to join it – a Bihari obsession present in campuses, college hostels, money-generating coaching machines and private lodges where students lived to fulfill that dream.

I do not remember the details of Faruqi’s talk, except that it was about Urdu. What I do recall is that the lecture hall was full. And the delivery of his speech was gripping. When the microphone stopped to work, Faruqi assured the embarrassed organizer that he did not need it because his natural voice would suffice. He was right.

From Patna, I moved to Delhi for my higher education in anthropology-sociology. My interest in literature continued privately, including the reading of Shabḳhūñ, the journal Faruqi launched in 1966. I turned to a systematic study of Faruqi only decades later.

Literary nationalism

A glaring index of Faruqi’s nationalism is his undue insistence on the Indianness of the Urdu word for criticism, tanqīd. Taking it as an invention of Urdu and hence a unique national expression, he juxtaposed it against and separated it from naqd and intiqād – words for criticism used in Farsi and Arabic traditions respectively. It is true that the most used Urdu word for criticism is tanqīd. However, it is wrong to say, as Faruqi did, that its Persian and Arabic equivalents, intiqād and naqd, are not deployed in Urdu. They are.

Philologically thus armed, Faruqi saw literature in nationalist catalogues. In The Secret Mirror: Essays on Urdu Poetry (1981), he argued that ghazal by Indian poets is “an expression of the Indian mind and part of the poetic tradition of the Indian heartland.” Mark how Faruqi tethers “mind” with territory (which none chooses to be born in), for “heartland” lexically pertains to geography. To substantiate this claim, he compared the Indian and Iranian poets who wrote in Farsi as follows: “The Iranian is essentially outward-looking and fights shy of abstract thought in poetry,” while “the Indian mind is endowed with a tendency to speculate.” Faruqi’s nationalism stemmed from the belief that “in temperament, in attitude to life and the universe” Indian Farsi poets were distinct from their Iranian counterparts.

In Faruqi’s account, this Indian mind is also expressed in Urdu ghazal, which succeeded Farsi poetry. “In the crucible of Urdu ghazal,” Faruqi wrote, “Indian and Islamic elements fuse into a true Indo-Islamic consciousness.” As an example “in our country,” Faruqi dwelled on Urdu ghazal’s preoccupation with life after death with a variety of speculation: “There is life after death; there is no life after death; there is no death; there is no life therefore no death either; there is rebirth after death; there is rebirth but in a different form; there is a cycle of life and death with each being an aspect of the other.” From this presumed fusion, Faruqi concluded that while “Ghalib or Momin or even Yagana would have resented the idea of standing in the Indian or Hindu tradition, … Mir and Insha might have been delighted.” Note that for Faruqi India equals Hindu. In Faruqi’s formulation, India/Indian functions as a perfect substitute for Hindu, which is posited as indigenous in contrast to Islam as alien. He does not write “Indian and Hindu”; rather, it is “Indian or Hindu tradition.” Mark also that Faruqi described the so-called fusion not as lesser or greater but as “true” and thereby logically false.

Such a nationalist formulation as Faruqi’s, however, is intellectually flawed. Even if we concede that there is a difference in temperament along national-territorial lines, what about the important differences within India, Iran or any country for that matter? Faruqi’s framework entailed nationally homogenizing the reality of vast diversity within to erect literary walls without to mirror national-territorial borders. The question is why he did that.

Faruqi, I think, was engaged in mimicry – an enterprise, which he joined rather late. He imitated the American-style anthropology of the 1940s and 1950s – especially of Ruth Benedict, Margaret Mead, and Rhoda Métraux frantically busy as it was in producing “national character” and “national personalities.” As an anthropologist, and contra Faruqi, I distrust any notion of ethnic-national mind. Raphael Patai’s The Arab Mind, published eight years before Faruqi’s The Secret Mirror, belonged to this particular nationalizing genre.

Faruqi was not alone in this endeavor. Gopi Chand Narang, himself a noted Urdu critic, too practices this nationalism. To him, Ghalib’s broadmindedness did not result from his affinity to Islam but due to distance from his faith. In Narang’s view, Indian/Hindu soil made Ghalib broadminded. He writes: “Although Ghalib came from outside [central Asia], the reality is that Ghalib’s nature was made from the soil of India” and his “broadmindedness and religious cosmopolitanism are deeply connected to Indian culture and mind.” As evidence, Narang cites Ghalib’s respect for festivals of other faiths. After quoting a couplet of Ghalib, Narang stresses that “this couplet has been composed especially for India.” In Narang’s Hindu nationalist account, India is presented as uniquely multireligious, as if the rest of the world, including the “outside” Ghalib came from, was monoreligious.

Whatever the differences between Faruqi and Narang might be on other issues, the nationalization of poetry and externalized othering of Islam make them intimate. In the hands of Narang, Faruqi’s “Indian mind” becomes the “soil of India.” Mediated by religion, the mind is soiled and the soil mentalized, and both are eventually nationalized. Also, notice how Narang mobilizes Indianness with an implied Hindu core to define the very “nature” of Ghalib. This is similar to philosopher Hobbes who invented the whole fiction of “human nature” to justify his theory of the Leviathan. Notably, in this reading of Ghalib, Narang was far from original. Rather he partook in an established but suffocating tradition of Orientalism represented, among other scholars, by Alessandro Bausani and Ralph Russell both of whom analyzed Ghalib in similar terms.

Westoxication and separation

In important ways, Faruqi was also Westoxicated. The Iranian secular intellectual Jalal al-e Ahmad used Westoxication or Westoxification (in Persian g̣harbzadegī) to name a trope among the colonized that, inter alia, devalued the traditions and cultures of a society under Western domination. An example of Faruqi’s Westoxication is his outright dismissal of Altaf Hussain Hali (1837–1914) as a critic. Most practitioners of Urdu literature regard Hali’s Muqaddamah-e-shaʿr-v-shāʿrī as the first major text of criticism. Faruqi rejected this position. According to Faruqi, since the word tanqīd (i.e., criticism) does not figure in Hali’s text, it does not qualify as a book of criticism. In Faruqi’s view, Hali too did not consider himself a critic because a critic would never author such sentences as Hali did: “If because of human frailty I have written anything that hurts my fellow countrymen, with all humility I seek their apology.” Based on this premise and mocking at Hali, Faruqi wrote that Hali might have been a “reformer, preacher,” but not a critic.

Faruqi reached this judgment because the ideas of adab (literature in English; sāhitya in Hindi) that Hali and Faruqi respectively upheld were poles apart. Hali represented and was enmeshed in a more comprehensive notion of adab, which is part of Islamic discursive tradition. Barbara Metcalf and Ira Lapidus have written about this notion of adab, which is as much about etiquette, moral disposition, Sufi habitus, and practices in court as it is about knowledge and literary tastes. In contrast to Faruqi’s, Hali’s apology, therefore, is not a sign of absence of criticism; instead, it epitomizes a different concept of criticism and adab that accounts such as Faruqi’s and others’ can either only misunderstand or devalue, or both.

Behind Faruqi’s dismissal of Hali as a critic also lay another element of Westoxication. Unlike Hali who took literature, morality and religion as connected (surely, not the same) spheres rather than surgically separated, seldom did Faruqi show appreciation for any traffic between Islam and literature. This was one reason why Faruqi did not regard Muhammad Iqbal as a great poet. Faruqi’s opposition to this specific traffic, however, did not equally extend to similar traffic between literature and religion other than Islam. As shown in the previous quote, Faruqi wrote admirably about the Hindu notions of birth and rebirth as emblem of the so-called Indian mind endowed with “a tendency to speculate” and which, in his nationalist and nationalizing narrative, stood in sharp opposition to the so-called Iranian mind “shy of abstract thought.”

In short, Faruqi viewed life not as an integrated ensemble but as a series of domains neatly separated from one another. In this separatist posture, Faruqi was the exact opposite of Kalimuddin Ahmad (1908-1983), the most notable Urdu critic of his generation and who was revered and reviled alike. Since he took life as a totality, for Ahmad criticism in the sense of judgment was an activity in which prostitutes, traders and craftsmen all took part, though differently. In contrast, since Faruqi adopted a separatist stance, he isolated criticism from life to render it as a preoccupation of literary scholars alone.

Dictatorship of the literary

 The third feature of Faruqi’s scholarship on criticism was his skewed notion of what constitutes the literary and the ways in which to evaluate it. In his 2010 book Ṣurat v mʿānā soḳhan, he defined the goal of criticism “to describe the merits and demerits of a literary work.” An important question, then, is: what are the parameters to describe the (de)merits? Faruqi dismissed any “non-literary” or “external” parameter. He argued that a literary work should be judged by “isolating itself from the rest” and “solitarily analyzing and studying it.” This inwardness consequently led him to focus on its internal dynamics alone and oppose, almost militantly, what he himself defined as “external” or “non-literary.” This is what I mean by dictatorship of the literary that Faruqi’s scholarship on criticism exemplified.

Let me clarify that I am not suggesting the typical sociology-anthropology of literature approach – for instance, manifest in anthropologist Steve Caton’s book on Arabic poetry in Yemen – in which the literary is reduced to social, local and contextual factors. This is too crude an approach to appreciate the power and creativity of the literary, which as a secret, unpublished poet I only vouch for. My critique of Faruqi concerns his framework in which the literary, itself conceived so lazily, dictates terms to expel everything else. It is important to note that Faruqi’s hostility to non-literary was – as Nasir Abbas Nayyar observes, albeit differently – a reaction to Marxists like Ehtesham Husain who held that literature ought to serve people’s cause. The peripheral status assigned to the literary by Marxists thus acquired unquestioned primacy in Faruqi. While railing against Marxists in public, Faruqi embraced – if secretly, unwittingly and perversely – his own enemy.

Faruqi’s was not only a reactive stance, though. It was also a rebellion against his own self in its youth. When he began his literary career, like the progressive writers, Faruqi maintained: “Today we are ready to accept only that literature which propagates a philosophy of life.” Faruqi’s rebellion thus seemed similar to Plato’s. Having composed poems in his youth, Plato later violently called for expulsion of poets from the polis.

Photo: Rekhta

In the dictatorship of the literary that later became Faruqi’s credo, his isolationist approach saw life, as pointed out earlier, in terms of endless separation. In his 2004 book Tanqīdī afkār, he wrote: “Those who want to learn philosophy through poetry are…cowardly.” Here Faruqi’s straw man was, to say the least, poor. I do not know of anyone one who takes poetry as a substitute to philosophy as a disciplinary knowledge. Faruqi seemed to restage Plato’s quarrel between poetry and philosophy.

However, it is well known that Plato’s separation of philosophy from poetry subsequently lost its vigor. Philosophers from Giambattista Vico (d. 1744) through Nietzsche (d. 1900) to Heidegger (d. 1976) – to name only some – instead saw poetry and philosophy as interdependent. Unlike Faruqi, philosopher Søren Kierkegaard in fact held that “I am a poet, alas, just a poet.” Thus seen, poetry by Patna’s Abdul-Qadir Bedil (d. 1720), Delhi’s Ghalib (d. 1869), Lahore’s Iqbal (d. 1938) and Motihari’s Jameel Mazhari (d. 1979) is also philosophical in the same way as is the poetry of Rumi and Hafiz, figures external to Faruqi’s “heartland.” I am unable to give similar examples from Malayalam, Sanskrit or other poetic traditions in Africa, Europe and Latin America because my familiarity with them, to put it generously, is superficial or non-existent. To return to the subject of interdependence, Raymond Barfield’s searching remark deserves much attention that “poetry without philosophy can become,” indeed often it is, “a linguistic sideshow.”

To my knowledge, Faruqi did not respond to my critique published (in 2017) in English in Religion as Critique. In June 2020, I published a version of my critique in Imroz, an Urdu journal published from Aligarh. Surprisingly, the issue in which it appeared also had an article by Faruqi. I can only speculate if Faruqi read my critique or thought about writing his response. That I can only speculate, I want to stress, is not because of my unique “Indian mind” distinct from the “Iranian mind,” which, according to Faruqi, lacked speculative quality. Speculation does not rest on nationalized mind. It is a human attribute – present perhaps also in my cat, about which I cannot be dead sure, however.

Political anthropologist Irfan Ahmad is a senior research fellow at the Max Planck Institute for the Study of Religious and Ethnic Diversity, Göttingen, Germany. Author of two monographs, Islamism and Democracy in India (Princeton University Press, 2009) and Religion as Critique: Islamic Critical Thinking from Mecca to the Marketplace (University of North Carolina Press, 2017) and co-editor of two volumes, most recently he is the editor of Anthropology and Ethnography are Not Equivalent: Reorienting Anthropology for the Future (Berghahn, 2021). Previously, he taught politics and anthropology at universities in Australia and the Netherlands. He contributes to important debates in the global media.


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