Colonialism, Decolonisation, and Urdu Adab: Remembering Shamsur Rahman Faruqi

Photo: Wikipedia

By Fahad Hashmi

I heard the name “Faruqi” with the honorific suffix “sahib” quite early in my life from my father. One day I took out the first volume of Sher-e Shor Angez (The Tumultuous Verse) from my father’s almirah and started flipping through it. I couldn’t make head or tail of whatever I read. However, in the meantime, I came across a sentence that made sense to me, and I jotted it down in my diary. It was a quote from S.T. Coleridge:

Language is the armoury of the human mind; and at once contains the trophies of its past and the weapons of its future conquests.

Once I happened to see Shabkhoon (Night Attack) in my home. I had heard a lot about its role in ushering in a new era of Urdu literature. In the editorial of that particular issue Faruqi sahib took exception to the then editor of Hans magazine Rajendra Yadav’s write-up on Islam/Islamic history that, according to him, was based on misinformation. At Jamia Millia Islamia, I heard Qurratul‘ain Hyder asking rhetorically: hum me se kitne hain jo Shabkhoon padhte hain?! (How many of us read Shabkhoon?!). During my graduation days, I read Sheryaat – a superb translation of Aristotle’s Poetics by Faruqi sahib.

During the anti-CAA movement in 2019-20, I was reading afsane at the protest sites –Shaheen Bagh, as well as the JMI. I came across Ghalib afsana, and thoroughly enjoyed it. One day while having a conversation with friends just near the Ghalib statue late at night, an idea struck me that I could also, just like Faruqi sahib, meet Mirza Ghalib in the background of the socio-political situation. Later, I wrote a piece wherein I happened to meet Ghalib in the “Gulistan-e Ghalib” on the eve of the bard’s birthday. It was published in the Punch Magazine. I wanted to send the piece to Faruqi sahib but I didn’t have his email ID. Therefore, I sent it to his daughter Mehr Afshan Farooqi, a writer and critic of Urdu in her own right. She not only promised me that she would “pass it on to him” but also provided me with Faruqi sahib’s email ID. “You can contact him directly at ***,” she added.

I sent the link of my write-up to Faruqi sahib around 3 in the afternoon. I got his response at 6:40 pm on the same day.

Dear Fahad, Thank you for letting me see your Jamia Square. And many thanks for mentioning me as a source. Your piece is graphic.

It really made my day. Faruqi sahib concluded his email saying:

I hope you would consider my suggestions and also the fact that I appreciate your piece.

Yours, with best regards, SRF., Mar. 9, 2020.


Being a student of social sciences, I find three inter-connected motifs in Faruqi’s oeuvre that entails fiction as well as non-fiction.

First things first. Faruqi longs for a continuous past, and particularly for the Adbi milieu of yore. And, thus a sense of nostalgia is written into the warp and weft of Faruqi’s literary fabric – spread across varied genres. His effort in retrieving that Adbi past from the colonial narrative, and its narrativization in the post-Colonial India is writ large in his oeuvre. Savaar aur Doosre Afsane (The Sun That Rose from the Earth),[1] Kayi Chaand The Sar-easman (The Mirror of Beauty), Qabz-e Zaman (Time-Compression), and a host of articles including the theoretical pieces testify to this fact. The particular way the past has got materialized in the above three creative works gives an impression that it is personal as well as emotional for Faruqi. While reading Kayi Chaand The Sar-easman the past appears to be present because one feels it. Differently stated, Faruqi feels the loss of the past in the given present and with him the reader, too, feels it. This narrative structure is very close to melancholy historicism. Khalid Jawed rightly observes about Qabz-e Zaman that Faruqi has blended intellectual, cultural, and literary traditions of the East which has made it “purely an Oriental novel.”  

Reading Faruqi has always given me an impression that a certain form of decolonisation of the Urdu adab is at play. We know that, besides political conquest, colonialism was also an epistemological project. To this specific end, a battery of Orientalists, ethnographers, anthropologists, translators, archaeologists, and others were harnessed in the project of knowledge-production with a view to tightening the noose of the colonized people. Colonialism also created a particular “class” of people who were “interpreters” between the colonizers and the “millions” they wanted to “govern” to hold its grip. Urdu adab was no exception to this colonial intervention, or the “colonial gaze.” Social Sciences and Humanities are still governed by the Euro-centric paradigm and epistemologies in spite of the fact that postcolonial studies has got an international reach. V. Y. Mudimbe calls it “Colonial Library.” Akbar Ilahabadi was right: 

Top khiski professor pahoonche

Jab basola hata to randa hai

(Canon departed, professor arrived;

Jack plane replaced the axe)[2]

We got to know from Edward Said and Michel Foucault that knowledge is always subservient to larger power agenda. Peter Van der Veer aptly writes: “Orientalist discourse found its way easily into religious reform movements and into religious nationalism.” Reformers – Hindus as well as Muslims – picked up the trope of decline of the East, and got themselves busy in reformation of their communities. Put differently, the reform movements worked as a conduit through which colonial values made inroads. Hali’s couplet succinctly testifies to the task he had undertaken:

Hali, ab aao pairavi-e maghribi karen

Bas iqtida-e Musahafi aur Mir ho chuki

(Hali, come now, let us follow the West;

Enough of the leadership of Musahafi and Mir)[3]

To criticise the “ills” of Urdu poetry, Hali profusely quoted Milton, and Macaulay, too. More to the point, Hali wanted to shape Urdu poetry in accordance with the parameter of English poetry: Saadgi (simplicity), Asliyat (originality), and Josh (passion), taking a cue from Milton. The condemnation of Urdu poetry as “useless” is seamlessly woven in Hali’s Muqaddamae  Sher-o- Shairi which has got a Kantian ring to it at the last sight. Europeans considered East to be a stagnant civilization obsessed with externalities and superficiality; and thus had a disdain for ornate language, Arabic grammar, its syntax, traditional pedagogy – recitation, memorization, and so forth. The imprint of colonial narrative about the colonized people’s inferiority in terms of culture, literature, education, law, and other fields could easily be found. In his famous Musaddas-e Madd-o Jazr-e Islam (Musaddas on the flow and Ebb of Islam), Hali, too, looks infuriated, and rejects the entire corpus of Urdu poetry, declaring it napaak daftar (filthy archive) which stinks like a sandaas (traditional form of toilet).

Vo sher-o-qasayed ka napaak daftar

Ufunat me sandaas se hai jo badtar

(The filthy archive of poetry and odes,

more foul than a cesspool in its putridity)[4]

Or, take this couplet from the same Musaddas:

Gunahgar vaan choot jayen gein saare

Jahannam ko bhar dein gein shayar hamare

(All sinners will be acquitted,

While our poets will fill up hell)[5]

Reading Mudd-o-jazar-e-Islam, or Musaddas-e-Hali as it is popularly called, had left a deep imprint on my mind. In fact, Altaf Hussain Hali, or Maulana Hali as he is famously called, has been very close to heart since childhood. We had memorised a good deal of his kalam by heart. I still remember this stanza from Musaddas-e-Hali in praise of the Prophet.

Vo nabiyon me rahmat laqab paane vala

Murandein gharibon ki bur lane vala

Musibat me ghairon ke kaam aane vala

Vo apne paraye ka ghum khane vala

Faqiron ka malja zayifon ka maava

Yatimon ka vaali gholamon ka maula

(The one who has received the title of ‘Mercy’ among the prophets,

the one who fulfils the desire of the wretched,

The one who comes to the help of others in trouble,

the one who takes to his heart the sufferings of his own and other people,

The refuge of the poor, the asylum of the weak,

the guardians of orphans, and the protector of slaves)[6]

Much after Hali, Kaleemuddin Ahmad, a noted Urdu literary critic, did the same in judging Allama Iqbal’s poetry in his book titled Iqbal: Ek Motala (Iqbal: A Study). To compare Iqbal’s Shaheen (Falcon), for instance, Ahmad deployed Tennyson’s The Eagle Fragment, and Hopkins’s The Windhover; and ruthlessly mocked and ridiculed Iqbal.

Faruqi, through his works, appears to be busy in questioning and challenging the hierarchy instituted by the colonial masters and their apologists; in other words, Faruqi looks busy at provincializing Europe in his writings. And his critical appraisal of Hali stems from this particular location. My affection aside; one would only vouch for Faruqi’s analysis after reading Hali’s Muqaddama sher-o-shayari. Faruqi has admiration for Hali, but he is against hero-worship. He forcefully puts forth this point in the preface to Zafar Ahmad Siddiqui’s book on Shibli:

Islam teaches us to respect truth and honesty. In the field of education this teaching is contrary to hero-worship. Hero-worship conditions a situation wherein critique of a prominent person’s opinion leads to an outcry from his admirers. And the other side of hero-worship is that we consider the person we admire to be so weak and so insecure that a commentator’s objection, or a critic’s assessment appear to us to be shaking that person’s eminence. It is obvious, however, that how could one be a person of eminence if his thoughts and premises cannot be subjected to critical perspective and intellectual evaluation?

To accomplish his task, Faruqi, first, undoes the strands of the colonial/colonial-inspired narrative, and then narrates his own tale. Faruqi’s Early Urdu Literary Culture and History makes it abundantly clear. It questions, to borrow Manan Ahmad’s phrase, the “origins myth” of Urdu language popularised and propagated by the Britishers. Gilchrist writes:

This name of the country being modern, as well as the vernacular tongue in question, no other appeared so appropriate as it did to me, when I first engaged in the study and cultivation of the language. That the natives and others call it also Hindee, Indian from Hind, … cannot be denied; but as this is apt to be confounded with Hinduwee, Hindoo,ee, Hindvee, the derivative form from Hindoo, I adhere to my original opinion, that we should invariably discard all other denominations of the popular speech of this country, including the unmeaning word Moors, and substitute for them Hindoostanee, …

Hinduwee I have treated as the exclusive property of the Hindus alone; and have therefore constantly applied it to the old language of India, which prevailed before the Moosulman invasion; …

Going against this colonial narrative about the origin of Hindi and Urdu, as well as its regurgitation in the postcolonial India, Faruqi provides a reasoned alternative to the invented narrative about the language and its origin in this book. Faruqi unties “Hindi, Hindu, and Hindustan,” by tracing the trajectory of word “Urdu,” stretching back to the pre-Colonial period. One gets to know that the earlier names for today’s Urdu were Hindvī, Hindī, Dihlavī, Gujrī, Dakanī, and Rekhtah. The two monikers, that is, Rekhtah and Hindī were used for the same language in the north in the eighteenth century, and later the name “Hindi” got more popular for the same language in the mid-nineteenth century. Moreover, there was no such division as Urdu/Hindu at the time; and the names “Indostan,” “Moors,” “Hindoostanic,” and “Hindoostanee” for the language were only colonial inventions. The Britishers made the original language into two: “Hindustani” for Muslims, and “Hindi” for Hindus. The colonial state’s support and circulation of the word “Hindustani” as a language of Muslims did not succeed as it was not a very popular term among its speakers; therefore, they picked up “Urdu” (Oorduwer) owing to its origin in the Turkish language; and it got currency. That also served the imperial project of portraying Muslims as “outsiders” and “barbaric.” The present-day name Urdu travelled a path from zaban-e urdu-e mualla-e shahjahanabad (the language of the exalted city/court of Shahjahanabad) to zaban-e urdu-e mualla-e to zaban-e urdu-e to urdu. And Faruqi also does not mince his words in stating the fact that modern Hindi is a shaili (style) of Urdu, not the other way around. Tara Chand and Suniti Kumar Chatterji held the same view.

In untangling this spool of narrative, Faruqi looks anti-national – given today’s account of nationalism, of course!

In the above book Faruqi also took exception to Amrit Rai’s A House Divided that sought to analyse the emergence of the two languages. One comes to know that Rai’s thesis is an extended as well as elaborated version of Prem Chand’s view, who was also of the opinion that “the culture (sanskriti) of the Muslims is that of Iran and Arab!” Rai’s thesis, according to Faruqi, is “full of inconsistencies, or tendentious speculation rather than hard facts, or fanciful interpretation of actual facts.” The story of Urdu further gets complicated when one gets to know that Muhammad Hussain Azad didn’t include Hindu poets in his classic, Aab-e Hayat (Water of Life). Sarab Sukh Deewana, Ajay Chand Bhatnagar, Tek Chand Bahar, and a slew of Hindu poets didn’t even get a mention. Great poets like Deya Shankar Naseem and Ghansheyam Lal Aasi have only been mentioned in the footnote. Of all the Urdu poets of the eighteenth and nineteenth century, Hali’s Muqaddama mentions only Deya Shankar Naseem; that too with condescension. Faruqi looks very perturbed writing about this particular lacuna in the canon of Urdu.

Lastly, Faruqi looks busy in re-centring the Indigenous poetics and Adbi genres considering their ruthless erasure by the reformers and modernists. The volume 1 of his series on Dastan (oral storytelling) attests to this fact. In it he recounts the uniqueness as well as the beauty of oral tradition of East: Dastangoi. It holds equally true for Sher-e Shor Angez (a four-volume study of Mir Taqi Mir). In the very first sentence of the tamheed of the volume 1 of Sher-e Shor Angez, Faruqi writes:

Such a qualitative selection of Mir’s love poems that could be placed unhesitatingly besides the best poetry of the world.

It also emerges starkly in Faruqi’s preface to Dr. Lateefullah’s translation of Amir Khusru’s Deebacha-e-Deewan-e-Ghurratul Kamal. He longs for Indo-Islamic consciousness in Urdu adab that was an important constitutive element of the “common culture” that was tampered with by the Britishers. Faruqi often uses the word “Indian mind,” “Indo-Islamic mind,” “Indo-Muslim,” and “Indo-Islamic” for literary works whose distinctive features set them apart from those works that got produced in distant lands like Iran, China, England, etc. Alternatively, to bring an analogy, it is like stating the fact that “Samba” is a Brazilian dance, and “Tango” belongs to Argentina. Unlike A. K. Ramanujan who didn’t take into account “Muslim” to probe “an Indian way of thinking,” Faruqi, on close reading, looks very sensitive towards Indo-Islamic socio-cultural consciousness, and also the varied elements that went into the making of this particular consciousness. In an important article, he talks about “our literary criticism” and “our literary culture,” and a bit later, he opines:

By ‘our’ I mean the literary tradition and poetics of Sanskrit, Arabic, and Persian. It entails all those literary traditions that got produced and thrived in Hindustan or outside Hindustan under the influence of Sanskrit, or Arabic, or Persian traditions.

While reading Faruqi one might get a sense that he is engaging with “Indianness” in the sense the dominant narrative equates it with “Hindu”/ “Hinduness.” This supposition is much wide of the mark. He saw “the past” just as it was, without going into the “Indic” and the “Muslim”, or “secular” and “religious” division of our collective past. His negation of seeing the past in dichotomous category gets reflected in his view on Dara Shukoh and Aurangzeb. He comments:

… the basis of discord between Dara and Aurangzeb was not that Dara was a Hindu lover, and Aurangzeb was relatively a fanatic Muslim. The two were playing their own tricks in the wider political realm to get the Peacock Throne; and Aurangzeb got victory because of his superior qualities.

The whole effort of Qazi Abdus Sattar is to show that Dara was profusely impressed by the Hindu religion and to present his [Dara’s] sympathetic inclination towards Hindu subject in such an exaggerated way that Dara—more than a Mughal prince—appears to be a Hindu prince.

And Faruqi’s juxtaposition of “mind” with “territory” above is to emphasise the uniqueness of the literary work that got produced here. This is akin to Hali’s tagging of josh (passion) with Arab’s garm khoon (hot blood) which owes to, in Hali’s conception of things, their jibilli khasyat (innate trait). Even Iqbal talked about “Indian mind” (zehan-i-hindi) in one of his couplets:

ata momin ko phir dargah-i-haqq se hone wala hai
shikoh-e-turkamani, zehan-i-hindi, nutq-i-arabi

(The true believers are once more to receive from the court of God

The glory of the Turkamans, the intellect of the Indians and the eloquence of the Arabs)[7]

This shows that not only Faruqi (who compares “Iranian mind” with that of “Indian mind”) but also Iqbal has drawn such comparisons. In his preface to Israr-e Khudi, Iqbal muses about dimagh (mind) and dil (heart); and links the latter with the Iranian people, and the former with the inhabitants of India. Interestingly, the bard opines that the Iranian people were not used to “mental exercise” owing to their nazuk mizaji (delicate temperament) and lateefut taba’ (gentle disposition).

To add more to it, besides re-centring Indigenous Adbi genres, one also finds that Faruqi, in his creative works, constructs the Adbi milieu from the ashes of the colonial past. Colonialism made the East an ossified object; its women submissive – not an agential being. In The Mirror of Beauty, Faruqi launches his attack on this very European idea about women of the East. Thus, Wazir Khanum rebukes Marston Blake on his poor view about Indian servants:

“So you mean to say that we taught them to steal?” Marston Blake would retort angrily.

“You may not have taught them,” she would cry out, “but god will be our witness to say that our servants are not thieves. True, you did not teach them to steal. But did you ever stop to think from whom they contracted this vicious habit?”

“There is nothing to think about. All bastards, these Indians. They are all the same.”

“It is you, the English, who don’t believe in marriage or legal wedding, and you describe my people as bastards! Don’t let such words ever pass your lips again, or I …”

In Sawar (Rider), Faruqi resurrects the vibrant academic and literary culture of the East—Delhi, a seat of learning at the time; and recounts the story of Rahimiyah Madrasah, and a galaxy of illustrious scholars associated with it: Shah Abdur Rahim, Shah Valiullah Dehlavi, Shah Abdul Aziz, and so forth. Khairuddin, the narrator in the Rider, gives us a slice of Adbi milieu of Dehli as:

I am no poet and I am not much of a student of Persian poetry either. I have read Persian just enough as necessary for me to understand the Persian texts set for study in the class. And as regards the ghazal, it is certainly not a thing to be read, so much as heard. The breezes that blew so pleasantly through the lanes and bazaars of Delhi resonated anyway with the poetry of Mirza Bedil, his disciple Achal Das, his friend Muhammad Afzal Sarkhush, and younger poets like Anand Ram Mukhlis, Mirza Mazhar Jan-e Janan and scores of others. The winds wafted away the poetry to far-off places. In spite of the ghazal enjoying such popularity, I had never composed a line of verse in Persian. If ever in the future I thought of turning my hand to poetry, I would choose Rekhtah, or Hindi, as that language was often called nowadays. The better poets today were turning to Rekhtah in large numbers.


I rewrote the article, “Mirza Ghalib at Jamia,” in Urdu, incorporating Faruqi sahib’s advice; and wanted to get it published on the occasion of Ghalib’s birth anniversary. The editor of the Danish sent the link of the piece on December 24th 2020. I gave it a quick glance and decided to send it to Faruqi sahib the next day.

But, alas, the first news that I encountered after getting up the next day was in Mehr Farooqi’s words:

We reached Allahabad and father transitioned peacefully.

Hali’s marsiy-e Ghalib cropped up in the mind:

log kuch poochne ko aaye hain

ahl-e mayyat janazah thahrayen

layengein phir kahan se Ghalib ko

suye madfan abhi na ley jayen

(People are here to ask for something;

Hold the funeral procession for a while;

How shall we bring Ghalib (read: Faruqi) back to life?

Don’t take him to the burial site for now!)

I wanted to attend the funeral but owing to Corona-19 Pandemic it was next to impossible. I said a prayer for him from my place; set out for a long stroll with Faruqi sahib’s couplet on my lips.

Ye lauh-e mazaar to meri hai phir is pe tumhara naam hai kyun

Ye mazaar hi kyun mujhe lagta hai har qabar me, mai hi leta hoon

[1] The Sun That Rose from the Earth is Faruqi’s English translation of Savaar aur Doosre Afsane— a collection of his five stories. The stories in the two books are slightly different in content. Moreover, the English rendition of Savaar aur Doosre Afsane doesn’t contain Lahore ka ek waqiya; it entails a translation of Qabz-e Zaman—Faruqi’s novel in Urdu.

[2] All translation are mine unless stated otherwise.

[3] Translated by Mehr Afshan Farooqi.

[4] Translated by Christopher Shackle and Javed Majeed.

[5] Translated by Christopher Shackle and Javed Majeed.

[6] Translated by Christopher Shackle and Javed Majeed.

[7] Translated by D. J. Matthews.

Fahad Hashmi is a doctoral candidate at the Department of Sociology, University of Delhi.


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