Friday, July 25, 2008

4. Mir Amman, the first thriller-writer in Urdu

This is a series of blogs about the creation and philosophy of Pakistan and its key actors. These accounts are based on historical facts and references are linked at the bottom.
Mir Amman of Delhi wrote Bagh-o-Bahar, or the Tale of the Four Dervishes in simple Urdu in 1803. The same year, the Mughal Emperor accepted protection of the British East India Company. The Muslim political rule in India was over.

In the twenty years from 1807 to 1826 we find a growing interest in Urdu prose and most of this activity can be traced back to the influence of Amman’s work. Since Amman had been commissioned by John Borthwick Gilchrist of Fort William College, Calcutta, his purpose had been to adjust this classic tale of Persian (already translated into flowery Urdu some thirty years ago) to the tastes of the British officers. Was it in some uncanny manner a way of acquiring freedom of imagination at a time when political freedom could not be preserved? And using the conquerors in acquiring such freedom!

Regardless of how much of the work was Amman’s own and how much of it ought to be credited to the previous writers of Persian and stylized Urdu, Bagh-o-Bahar presents a symbolic portrait of a society temporarily suffering from chaos and disorder but inwardly brimming with hope and a certain belief that order and glory shall return. Here we find nobles and princes turned into dervishes, fortunes overturned suddenly, and good times prophesied by the spirit of Ali, the cousin of Prophet Muhammad and the acclaimed founder of Sufism.

The plot-structure is intricate. Four dervishes narrate their tales. Each is a wealthy heir suffering from a reversal of fortune. Each has been guided by Ali, who has prophesied that afflictions shall be over and the order restored when the King of Istanbul (the highest seat of Muslim power) joins the company of dervishes. It is difficult not to read a secret message embedded in this storyline: spiritual reconstruction of society.

Interestingly, this first “thriller” of Urdu prose was based on a Persian classic commonly attributed to Amir Khusro, one of the greatest Sufi writers of all times who lived in the 13th Century. The plot thickens?

Next Installment: Mirza Ghalib, the Secrets of the Self

You can find out more about Mir Amman of Delhi at while a nineteenth century English translation of Bagh-O-Bahar can be downloaded from
or an online resource visited at

Sunday, July 20, 2008

3. Sachal Sarmast: an early poet of Pakistan

This is a series of blogs about the creation and philosophy of Pakistan and its key actors. These accounts are based on historical facts and references are linked at the bottom.
Sachal Sarmast (1739-1829) lived in Sindh and is buried there but he wrote in almost all the languages spoken in Pakistan today: Sindhi, Punjabi, Saraiki, Persian and even Urdu.

Since 1887, regional identities were emerging in the sub-continent in unexpected ways: Sultan Hyder Ali of Mysore and his son Sultan Tipu who put up brave fight against the British invaders were national heroes but they had to fight their battles like regional chiefs who were often at odds with their neighbors.

The North-West India (comprising of Sindh, Balochistan, Punjab and Sarhad) had been severed from the mainland two generations ago but had not yet found a stable alternative. Sikhs, Kalhoras (succeeded by Talpurs in 1783) and other provincial rulers were the order of the day. In this context, the multi-lingual poetry of Sarmast becomes the exponent of a new regional identity in the making:

“I am born of none, I am brought up by none.”
“How did you then come to be here?”
“I left the Heavens and came to earth.”
“But why?”
“Ah, I could not be contained in Heaven’s chair.”
Next: Mir Amman: the first thriller-writer of Urdu
You can find out more about Sachal Sarmast at

Saturday, July 12, 2008

2. Mir Taqi Mir: Dislocation of Values

This is a series of blogs about the creation and philosophy of Pakistan and its key actors. These accounts are based on historical facts and references are linked at the bottom.
If the purpose of Waliullah was a spiritual social reconstruction then that would not be achieved without detaching from the old order of things. By 1767 AD it became obvious that the old order was not going to last: Bengal had fallen to British in the Battle of Plassey (1757 AD) and Mughal Emperor had accepted their authority through the Treaty of Allahabad (1765 AD). Yet something of the old order needed to be preserved and transferred to posterity.
Consciously or unconsciously, Mir Taqi Mir (b. 1723 - d. 1810), one of the greatest Urdu poets, used an interesting technique: he attributed most good things to the kafir, or the infidel and non-Muslim – “O Mir, he was a great infidel who first embraced the religion of love…”:
Likewise, he would identify himself more readily with unbelief than with Islam – “What do you ask of Mir’s religion and creed now, for he has long withdrawn to a temple and has renounced Islam…”:

It is interesting to note that while mocking his own identity in this manner he never gave up the key values associated with that identity - such as love, fidelity, high aesthetics and truthfulness. He simply transferred them to "the Other". Thus he also gave these values a life of their own: Love of God is not good just because it is supposed to be associated with Muslims but is good in itself. Consciously or unconsciously, he ended up ensuring that the best values of his parent society survive even after that society is transformed or annihilated.
Next Installment: Sachal Sarmast, an early poet of "Pakistan"
You can find out more about Mir Taqi Mir at

Friday, July 11, 2008

1: Shah Waliullah, the spiritual reconstruction of society

This is a series of blogs about the creation and philosophy of Pakistan and it's key actors. These accounts are based on historical facts and references are linked at the bottom.
In 1747, Ahmad Shah Abdali ascended the throne of Afghanistan and unified tribes to form the first “nation state” in the East – slightly before such states gained popularity in Europe.

Abdali also demanded that Punjab should secede from the Mughal Empire so that its revenue could go into the maintenance of Kabul. Quite interestingly, the Talpur rulers of Sindh also shifted allegiance from the Mughal Court to the Court of Abdali. Balochistan and Sarhad had already been severed from Mughal suzerainty. Hence the method and logic of Abdali may have been outlandish but he practically marked the boundaries of Pakistan: Sarhad, Balochistan, Punjab and Sindh (and even Kashmir) were no longer connected with the mainland India nor could they be truly absorbed into Afghanistan, since Afghanistan had become a nation state (in an Eastern sense if not the Western) and Abdali was not an "emperor" but a nationalist.

One man who may have seen a deeper meaning in these events was Shah Waliullah of Delhi: the visionary who had dreamed of a spiritual social reconstruction. It is is said that when Abdali rescued the Mughal King of Delhi from the onslaught of the Maratha Confederacy of the South in 1761, Waliullah suggested that instead of restoring the emperor, a council of nominated representatives should be given the charge and this council should rule by consensus. The suggestion could not be implemented – obviously, Waliullah was ahead of his times. He died a year later.

Next: Mir Taqi Mir, the dislocation of values

You can find out more about Shah Waliullah at

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Prelude: the Significance of A Dream

This is the first in a series of blogs on the creation and philosophy of Pakistan and its key actors. These accounts are based on historical facts and references are linked at the bottom.
The year is 1732. A thirty-year old man is sleeping in the precincts of the Holy Kaaba. In his dream he sees Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him), who tells him that he has been chosen for a special task in the history of Islam.

His name is Shah Waliullah and he is a scholar of hadith from Delhi. After waking up, he returns to India and starts writing a book about “the secrets of religion.” For centuries, these secrets had been kept hidden in monasteries but Waliullah believes that the time has come when the entire society can be “initiated” into these. He names his book The Conclusive Argument of God.

It is a strange coincidence of our history that a senior contemporary of Waliullah (1702-1762) was Shah Abdul Latif Bhitai of Sindh (1689-1752), who prepared groundwork for a very similar experiment in a different province. Unlike Waliullah, Bhittai expressed himself through poetry, parable and music – collected as Shah Jo Risalo. Indeed there seems to be a vast difference of form and appearance between the works of these two, but then Sufism is not about form or appearance. In terms of essence and purpose it seems that various Sufis and scholars in the first half of the 18th Century began, somehow simultaneously, to prepare for the birth of a new society based on Sufi principles.
Next: Shah Waliullah, the spiritual reconstruction of society
You can find out more about Shah Waliullah at
and about Shah Abdul Latif Bhittai at