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Urdu Literature

Ali S. Asani
The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Modern Islamic World What is This? Provides global coverage of the Muslim experience from the end of the eighteenth century through the twentieth century

Urdu Literature

The articulation of Islamic themes and values in nineteenth‐ and twentieth‐century Urdu literature was in response to two factors: the loss of Muslim political power in the subcontinent to the British, and a deeply felt need to cure Indian Muslims of their spiritual and religious malaise. This second factor was a consequence of a widespread perception among Muslims that as a community they needed to reinvigorate their relationship with Islam in the context of rapid change.

The first attempts to advocate sociopolitical reform of the Indo‐Muslim community using Islam as a basis can be traced to Shāh Walī Allāh (d. 1762), the great theologian of Delhi, who believed himself to be a renovator (mujaddid) of Islam. Although the most important work in which he expressed his reformist teaching was in Arabic (the Ḥujjat Allāh al‐bālighah), Shāh Walī Allāh's ideas had a deep impact on later generations of reformist writers in Urdu, ranging from conservatives to modernists and including such luminaries as Sir Sayyid Aḥmad Khān and Muhammad Iqbal. Shāh Walī Allāh felt strongly that Muslims would be better able to live in accordance with the precepts of their faith and to begin resolving their socioreligious problems if they could understand the Qur'ān for themselves without relying on the secondary interpretations of commentaries. Hence he translated the Qur'ān into Persian, the language of belles lettres, historiography, and administration in early modern India, paving the way for his two sons Rafī῾uddīn (d. 1818) and ῾Abdulqādir (d. 1813) to translate it into Urdu; the latter appropriately called his Urdu translation Mūḋiḥ al‐Qur'ān (Explainer of the Qur'ān). [See the biography of Walī Allāh.]

No doubt inspired by Shāh Walī Allāh's activism, his grandson Ismā῾īl Shahīd (d. 1831) became the theoretician for the energetic mujāhidīn reformist movement of the early nineteenth century initiated by Sayyid Aḥmad of Rae Bareilly (Sayyid Aḥmad Barelwī), a charismatic preacher who wanted to purge Islam of its accretions and corruptions. Ismā῾īl Shahīd's work Taqwiyat al‐īmān (Strengthening of the Faith) summarizes the basic ideas of the movement, which called Muslims to ῾amal ṣāliḥ (righteous action) according to God's command to improve their situation in this world and the next. Although both reformers lost their lives in a futile attempt to overthrow Sikh rule and establish an Islamic state in the Punjab, their disciples organized themselves into a large‐scale popular movement and produced a vast number of religious tracts in simple but vigorous Urdu; these called on the Muslim masses, especially in rural areas, to abandon syncretistic practices in favor of “pure” Islam. [See the biography of Barelwī.] Prominent among these reformers in Bengal was the indefatigable Karāmat ῾Alī of Jaunpur (d. 1873) who, despite his affiliations with the reform movement, argued that India under British rule was still part of dār al‐Islām, making rebellion against the British unlawful. Ismā῾īl Shahīd, like his grandfather, was affiliated to a branch of the activist Naqshbandī Ṣūfī order known as the Ṭarīqah Muḥammadīyah (Muḥammadan Path). As its name suggests, this movement placed strong emphasis on the figure of the prophet Muḥammad as a true and stable paradigm for the Muslim community in a period of political and social flux, a theme that recurs frequently in later Urdu literature. The ideology of the Ṭarīqah Muḥammadīyah influenced many prominent Urdu poets, including the so‐called “pillars of Urdu”—the stern Maẓhar Jānjānān (d. 1781) and the mystic poet Mīr Dard (d. 1785). Mu'min (d. 1851), a nineteenth‐century writer famous for his exquisite Urdu love poetry, was also connected to this movement and wrote short epic poems in support of the revivalist mujāhidīn.

In the aftermath of the 1857 military rebellion, the Muslim community was forced to come to terms not only with British political supremacy in South Asia but also with the growing presence of Western cultural institutions, particularly churches, schools, and colleges. The most influential response to this situation came from Sir Sayyid Aḥmad Khān (d. 1898) and his circle of colleagues. As a young man, Sir Sayyid was well trained in theology in the tradition of Shāh Walī Allāh as well as in Mu῾tazilah rationalism; he was also affiliated to the Ṭarīqah Muḥammadīyah. In keeping with the spirit of this Prophet‐oriented movement, he wrote in his early years a study intended to help Muslims examine Muḥammad's exemplary life and conduct without such customary hagiographic elements as miracles. In Khuṭbat‐i Aḥmadīyah, an Urdu biography of the Prophet, he also defended Muḥammad against derogatory attacks by Western scholars. Sir Sayyid was keenly interested in history and authored and edited several historical studies, including Āsār as‐Sanādīd, a valuable account of the historical buildings and personalities of Delhi.

After the traumatic events of 1857, Sir Sayyid was convinced that the best path for the Muslim community to follow was that of absolute and unwavering loyalty to the British. In support of his position he cited traditional Muslim authorities on the duties of subjects toward their rulers. Furthermore, he felt that Muslims should participate fully in the Western‐style educational system being established by the British in India so that they would not become a social and economic underclass. Western thought, he believed, was not in fundamental conflict with Islam, nor was studying the natural sciences, for there was no conflict between the Qur'ān, the word of God, and nature, the work of God. In this regard he advocated a rational approach to the Qur'ān based on fresh ijtihād, because Islam, in his interpretation, accommodates historical change. The mandates of the sharī῾ah, as interpreted by generations of medieval religious scholars, needed to be reexamined to determine whether they were in fact the essential mandates of the faith. To promote his ideas and provide young Muslims with Western‐style higher education, he fought for and eventually founded the Anglo‐Muhammadan College, which later became Aligarh Muslim University. Sayyid Aḥmad Khān was a prolific writer in Urdu and hoped to influence Muslims through his books and journals. The most significant of the latter was the monthly Urdu periodical Tahẓīb al‐akhlāq (The Polishing of Morals), also known as the Mohamedan Social Reformer, which revolutionized Urdu journalism. Its pages contained articles in clear and simple prose reflecting Sir Sayyid's modernist views on a wide range of issues, from public hygiene to rational speculation on religious dogma. [See Aligarh and the biography of Aḥmad Khān.]

Sayyid Aḥmad Khān's approach enjoyed the support of several important personalities in Indo‐Muslim society and formed the basis for the so‐called Aligarh Movement. Among its members were several important literati who wrote Urdu poetry and prose to disseminate its ideas. Most prominent among these was Altāf Ḥusayn Ḥālī (d. 1914), the founder of Urdu literary criticism. Trained in a strict theological tradition, Ḥālī was an employee of the Government Book Depot in Lahore, where he translated works of English literature into Urdu. He first became famous for the unusual themes of the poems he recited at poetical meetings (mushā῾irah) in Lahore. In 1874 Ḥālī moved to Delhi and was drawn into Sir Sayyid's circle. In 1879 he published his Madd va gazr‐i Islām (The Ebb and Flow of Islam), an epic poem considered to be the Aligarh movement's most enduring literary monument. Popularly known as the Musaddas after its six‐line stanzas, it contrasts the past glories and achievements of Islamic civilization with the miserable status of the Muslims of Ḥālī's time. The poem, which was recited aloud at conferences and boldly calligraphed in journals and newspapers, sharply attacked the evils prevalent in all segments of the Indian Muslim community. It marked the beginning of a new period in the history of Urdu poetry in which themes of revivalism and political romanticism became dominant. A generation later, we see the same spirit alive in Muhammad Iqbal's Shikvā and Javāb‐i shikvā (The Complaint, Answer to the Complaint) which record the Muslim community's laments to God about seeing wealth and glory everywhere except in the Islamic world.

Some of Ḥālī's poems, such as Ek bīvī kī munājāt (A Woman's Petition), focus on the plight of women in Muslim society. This theme was taken up by several reformist writers, including Naẓīr Aḥmad (d. 1912), a pioneer in the development of the Urdu novel. By profession a teacher and a translator of English legal texts into Urdu, Nazīr Aḥmad had also published a good Urdu translation of the Qur'ān, unusual in that it did not include the Arabic original. He was a firm believer in the importance of educating young people, particularly young women. Most of his novels therefore illustrated social or moral themes, showing the need for reform and change. His most famous book, Mir'āt al‐῾arūs (The Bride's Mirror), emphasized the need for female education by highlighting the miseries of an uneducated Muslim bride. In other works he addresses the evils of polygamy and attacks the Indian taboo against the remarriage of widows, which he felt was contrary to the spirit of Islam. Notwithstanding their didactic and moralistic tone, his works were tremendously popular for their realistic descriptions of middle‐class Muslim life. They also inspired similar works in other languages such as Sindhi—so much so that a school for girls was a standard feature of Indo‐Muslim reformist novels of the late nineteenth century. Other members of Sir Sayyid's circle, particularly Mumtāz ῾Alī, were equally concerned about improving the status of women. He seems to have devoted all his energies to this important issue and even published a special journal, Tahzīb al‐niswān, containing articles on women's issues. In his major work Ḥuqūq al‐niswān (The Rights of Women) he advocates complete equality between men and women.

Perhaps the most radical of Sir Sayyid's collaborators was Chirāgh ῾Alī (d. 1895), who served as finance secretary for the nizam of Hyderabad. Like Sir Sayyid, he advocated a modernist interpretation of the Qur'ān, which he regarded as not containing all the civil and political codes necessary for the regulation of modern society. He dismissed traditional Islamic jurisprudence, claiming that it took little from the Qur'ān. In many instances he was more daring than Sir Sayyid in his Qur'ānic interpretations. For example, he demonstrated that the Qur'ān was actually intended to ameliorate the position of women and implicitly prohibited polygamy, a theme repeated in the works of numerous later reformists. His most controversial stance, however, was in regard to the ḥadīth literature, which he considered entirely fabricated and therefore unworthy as a basis for Islamic jurisprudence. [See the biography of Chirāgh ῾Alī.] A more conservative and moderate colleague of Sir Sayyid was Muḥsin al‐Mulk (d. 1907), a regular contributor to the journal Tahzīb al‐akhlāq on a variety of theological issues. It was mainly his advocacy of a balance between religion and science in education that lessened the opposition of conservative religious scholars to the Western‐style Aligarh University. Muḥsin al‐Mulk played an active role in the Hindi‐Urdu controversy in 1900 by founding the Urdu Defence Association; he was also instrumental in establishing Urdu as the official language of Hyderabad state.

Sir Sayyid and the Aligarh Movement represented a pragmatic pro‐Western response to the encroachment of Western ideas and customs into Muslim India, but there were a variety of other responses. Interestingly, almost every response (including Sir Sayyid's) based interpretations on and drew inspiration from the work of Shāh Walī Allāh. His writings had placed a renewed emphasis on the ḥadīth as a source of authority and guidance for Muslims. In the nineteenth century this emphasis formed the focal point of a group called the Ahl‐i Ḥadīth. In an attempt to make the Muslim community conscious of the true heritage of the Prophet, this group stressed the exclusive primacy of the Qur'ān and the ḥadīth as fundamental guides in life. One of its most important leaders was Ṣiddīq Ḥasan Khān (d. 1890), whose father had participated in the jihād movement of Sayyid Aḥmad of Bareilly and Ismā῾īl Shahīd. A prolific writer of innumerable Urdu works on religious topics, especially ḥadīth literature, Ṣiddīq Ḥasan Khān married, amidst great controversy, the widowed princess of Bhopal. He and his colleagues in the Ahl‐i Ḥadīth rejected the authority of the founders of the four Sunnī schools of law as interpreters of the sharī῾ah and thus aroused the hostility of the conservative religious establishment. Since the latter group accepted the entire corpus of classical ḥadīth as genuine, they were also extremely critical of the scepticism displayed by some the Aligarh modernists toward the prophetic traditions. For them Sayyid Aḥmad Khān, whom they called “the modern prophet of nature‐worshippers,” was just the latest instigator of anarchic evils in Muslim society. With their extreme emphasis on the ḥadīth as a form of “concealed” revelation, the Ahl‐i Ḥadīth became involved in a vitriolic polemical war with a counter‐group led by ῾Abdullāh Chakrālavī, called the Ahl al‐Qur'ān. As its name suggests, this movement advocated total reliance on the Qur'ān as the most perfect source of guidance; the Qur'ān, according to them, contained all the basic injunctions for Muslims and left them free to decide on other matters.

More influential among the conservatives than these two groups was the theological school of Deoband, founded in 1867 by Rashīd Aḥmad Gangohī (d. 1905) and Maulānā Muḥammad Qāsim Nanotavī (d. 1880). The latter was a charismatic theologian who settled in Mecca after the 1857 rebellion and wrote several Urdu works on jihād and Islamic mysticism, and of Rashīd Aḥmad Gangohī. Deoband became a bastion of conservative Sunnī Islam, and its theologians prided themselves on upholding the authority of the four traditional schools of law. In time it acquired a reputation as an outstanding theological school, enrolling students from many parts of the Islamic world. Its curriculum, with Urdu as the medium of instruction, was strictly traditional, excluding English and modern sciences. In their works Deobandī theologians vigorously defended the need to accept the interpretations and consensus of the earlier Sunnī scholars and jurists and attacked all dissenting voices in the Muslim community. Rashid Aḥmad Gangohī, for example, dismissed Sir Sayyid's approach as a “deadly poison.” In addition, Maulānā Muḥammad Qāsim acquired a stellar reputation for his polemical disputations with Hindu and Christian missionaries, authoring the book Taqrīr‐i dil pāzīr on the subject. A later Deobandī scholar, Ashraf ῾Alī Thānvī (d. 1943), who attempted to popularize Islamic values among the less‐educated, achieved fame for his ten‐volume Urdu work Bihishtī zevar, a conservative guidebook for the life and education of Muslim women. [See Deobandīs.]

The prestige of Deoband as guardian of Sunnī Islam was enhanced in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries when its scholars took a leading role in refuting the claims of Mirzā Ghulām Aḥmad (d. 1908), the founder of the Aḥmadīyah movement. The orthodox were particularly enraged at what they perceived as Ghulām Aḥmad's challenge to the finality of Muḥammad's prophethood. The Aḥmadīyah controversy produced a voluminous stream of pamphlet literature and booklets in Urdu as well as Punjabi, both attacking and defending the movement and its doctrines; after considerable loss of life in riots, the Aḥmadīyah were declared non‐Muslim in 1975. [See Aḥmadīyah.]

Between Deoband's rigid conservatism and Aligarh's pro‐Western stance were a group of religious scholars who founded in 1894 at Lucknow the Nadvat al‐῾Ulamā', the second great theological institution of Muslim India. The Nadvat al‐῾Ulamā' was conceived as an institution to bridge the gap between religious scholars of all shades of opinion and modern educated Muslims. Playing a key role in the establishment of this institution was Muḥammad Shiblī Nu῾mānī (d. 1914), a professor at Aligarh University and the founder of historiography in Urdu. He wrote several biographies of the heroes of Islam, including the caliph ῾Umar, the medieval theologian al‐Ghazālī, and the mystic poet Jalāl al‐Dīn Rūmī. His biography of the prophet Muḥammad, Sīrat al‐nabī, partially intended as a response to polemical works by Christian missionaries, was posthumously completed by his disciple Maulānā Sulaymān Nadvī (d. 1953). A prolific writer, Shiblī also achieved renown for his history of Persian literature. Shiblī's interest in Islamic history stemmed primarily from his convictions that Islam needed to be revived from within and that the Muslims of his time could learn valuable lessons from the heroes of the past. His writings show a keen awareness of the social problems facing the Muslim community, not only in India but elsewhere. In this regard Shiblī had established contacts with Muḥammad ῾Abduh in Cairo, a connection that aroused British suspicion that Shiblī was a Pan‐Islamist. Toward the end of his life Shiblī established the Dār al‐Muṣannifīn or Shibli Academy at Azamgarh, with a view to organizing a school of writers who would engage in the highest traditions of Islamic scholarship. Its journal, Ma῾ārif, contains interesting articles of a theological nature.

Aside from theologians and religious scholars, the burgeoning Urdu press was also active in expressing its views on the challenges faced by the subcontinent's Muslim community. The papers and periodicals varied widely in their positions on various issues, so we cite only a few examples. Extremely popular for its satire was Avadh Punch, founded in 1877 by Munshī Sajjād Ḥusayn and modeled after the British Punch. Narrow in outlook and conservative on reform, it singled out the reformist Aligarh Movement for its biting sarcasm. Akbar Allāhābādī (d. 1921), a government civil servant and High Court judge, was among its most noted contributors; a poet trained in the Lucknow style, he had a marvelous command of Urdu vocabulary that permitted him to engage in ingenious wordplays, puns, and rhymes. His conservatism led him to write satirical verses that mocked everything Western, particularly Muslims who aped the West. Not surprisingly, Sir Sayyid was an obvious target. Akbar's witty observations on contemporary Muslim life reinvigorated satire in Urdu poetry.

Another periodical given to satire was Zamīndār; its editor, after 1909, was Maulānā Ẓafar ῾Alī, who was renowned for his satirical skills and extremely firm in his commitment to Islam. His vehemently anti‐British poems had a profound impact in agitating the Muslims of northern India. As Ẓafar ῾Alī satirized everything and everyone he disliked, several of his Muslim compatriots also became targets. Very different in character were Abū al‐Kalām Āzād's Al‐hilāl (founded in 1912) and Albalāgh (1915). Though by training a traditional theologian, Āzād (d. 1958) was unusual in his politics and theology. Pan‐Islamic in his views, he was one of the leading thinkers behind the Khilāfat movement that hoped to rally Indian Muslims around the Ottoman Caliph as head of the world Muslim community. His journals took a definite stance against the British and the pro‐British loyalties of the Aligarh group. During the independence movement he was firmly against the creation of a separate Muslim country, because he felt that the concept of a nation‐state was a Western one, contradicting the models prescribed by God and his prophet Muḥammad. Both his journals had a deep impact on their Muslim readership, but Āzād's main fame in modern Urdu literature rests on his Tarjumān al‐Qur'ān, a translation and commentary on the Qur'ān begun in 1931 and never completed. This masterpiece of beautiful Urdu reveals the author's mystically tinged theology, stressing God's compassion, love, and beauty. His liberal and humanitarian interpretation of Islam and his theory of divine providence (rubūbīyah) have had considerable influence in recent Indo‐Muslim thought. [See the biography of Āzād.]

The events of the first half of the twentieth century, which eventually led to the establishment of Pakistan as a separate Islamic state, influenced many Urdu writers to produce an interesting diversity of works in which they addressed pressing political, social, and religious issues. The figure that towers over all these writers and whose work had the most profound impact on the Muslim community was Muhammad Iqbal (d. 1938), the philosopher whose reformist poetry achieved such an impact that he is counted among the most significant thinkers of modern Islam. Since Iqbal was the first to advocate the idea of a separate Muslim homeland, he is also widely perceived as the spiritual founder of Pakistan. A huge number of books, articles, and pamphlets have been written in Urdu and English to explain and interpret his ideas on virtually every subject. Every religious, political, and social movement in contemporary Indo‐Muslim thought has turned to Iqbal's poetry and prose to find justification for its position.

Iqbal lived in a period of great change during which both Muslim and non‐Muslim leaders in several countries were actively advocating revolutionary changes in the nature of their societies. It was the age of Lenin, Ziya Gökalp, Atatürk, and Gandhi. Iqbal received his early education in Lahore, influenced in his thought by Sir Sayyid Aḥmad Khān, the historian Shiblī, and Sir Thomas Arnold, an Orientalist who was attempting to revive a less polemical and more sympathetic understanding of Islam in Western scholarship. In many ways Iqbal was also the inheritor of the ideas of Shāh Walī Allāh and Ḥālī, whose poetic style he followed. At the turn of the century he had already become well known for his Urdu poems expressing nationalist ideas, Hindu‐Muslim solidarity, and freedom for India. One of his poems from this period, Tarānah‐yi Hind, praised the glories of Hindustan and is still popular in India today. In 1905 Iqbal went to Cambridge, where he studied Hegelian philosophy; in 1907 he also received a doctorate from Munich for a thesis entitled The Development of Metaphysics in Persia. Iqbal's stay in the West was instrumental in the further evolution of his reformist ideas: it allowed him to become familiar with European philosophy—especially that of Nietzsche and Bergson, whose influence can be detected in his writings; it gave him the opportunity to reflect on the strengths and weaknesses of Muslim societies; and it enabled him to observe firsthand the positive and negative aspects of Western civilization.

On his return to India Iqbal was offered a position at Aligarh but chose to practice law. At heart, however, he was primarily a poet and used his poetry to articulate his thought in a manner unprecedented in modern Islamic history. In his first major reformist Urdu poem, Shikvā (The Complaint), written in 1911, he complains that God is fickle and has abandoned the faithful Muslims in favor of the infidels. A year later he composed God's reply in the form of Javāb‐i shikvā (Answer to the Complaint); here God points out the defects in the way Muslims practice and understand their faith. Both poems were clearly inspired by Hālī's Musaddas. During the war, Iqbal composed two major works—Asrār‐i khūdī (Secrets of the Self) and Rumūz‐i bīkhūdī (Mysteries of Selflessness). These, like all his major philosophical poems, he chose to write in Persian because he intended his ideas for an audience beyond the subcontinent. Here he reinterpreted the Persian mystical concept of khūdī (ego) in a positive sense, criticizing traditional Islamic mystical concepts and articulating the dynamic role of the individual in society. His emphasis here and his other Urdu and Persian poems was on activity and dynamism at both the individual and communal levels. He believed that each human, as the vicegerent of God on earth, had a duty actively to develop himself or herself to the highest potential. In 1924 Iqbal published a major collection of Urdu poems under the title Bang‐i darā (The Call of the Caravan Bell). The title is significant in that it reflects Iqbal's perception of his role and his message: he is the bell at the head of the caravan that rouses the sleeping and erring Muslims of India to activity, leading them to the center of Islam, the Ka῾bah in Mecca. By this time his poetry had garnered so much attention that he was knighted in 1922 by the British monarch.

For more than ten years after this period Iqbal published most of his significant writing either in English (Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam) or in Persian (Zabūr‐i ῾ajam, Persian Psalms; Javīdnāmah). In all these works Iqbal reveals his unique way of interpreting and expressing Islamic concepts and ideas through a skillful combination of Western and Eastern intellectual and literary tools. His next two Urdu works were Bāl‐i Jibrīl (Gabriel's Wing, 1936) and ẓarb‐i Kalīm (The Stroke of Moses, 1937). The former contains some of the finest of Iqbal's Urdu poems, including a renowned piece on the Mosque of Cordoba that recalls the past glory of Muslims. The poems of the latter work are mainly critiques of the existing political and social order, attacking both the British and Muslims who ape Western ways blindly.

Notwithstanding his tremendous literary output in Urdu, Persian, and English, Iqbal was not a systematic thinker. There are many contradictions in his works, a fact that explains why liberals, conservatives, reactionaries, and progressives were all able to interpret them according to their own inclinations. Nor does he seem to have thought through the practical application of his ideas. Some of them, such as the call to return to “pristine” Islam free from the fetters of tradition, the interpretations of the religious scholars, and the demand for ijtihād, were typical of the Islamic reformers of his time. His reinterpretation of the active participation of human beings within a dynamic creation, his call for individual action and responsibility, and his conception of the Qur'ān as a revelation that unfolds in time and eternity, were unusual and for some controversial. Yet Iqbal's Urdu verse, with its direct style devoid of the traditional flowery language and literary acrobatics, had tremendous appeal for the Indian Muslims who were searching for leaders with an intellectual and political vision. [See the biography of Iqbal.]

Although Iqbal far outshines other twentieth‐century Urdu authors writing on Islamic themes, there are several other individuals who should be mentioned either for the uniqueness of their ideas or for the popularity of their works. An interesting contemporary of Iqbal is ῾Ubaidullāh Sindhī (d. 1941), a Sikh convert to Islam. Initially trained at Deoband, he regarded himself as a disciple of Shāh Walī Allāh but interpreted his works with a strong revolutionary bias. Islam, in his estimation, preached social revolution and the overthrow of imperialism and feudalism. Jihād, the basis of this Islamic revolution, need not be violent; it could be the peaceful work of the pen and heart. The Ṣūfī concept of waḥdat al‐wujūd or oneness of being formed the foundation for his ideas on Hindu‐Muslim unity. Not surprisingly, the British exiled this “firebrand agitator” for more than twenty years.

Socialist ideas also influenced the writings of a few traditionally trained ῾ulamā', notably Ḥifẓ al‐Raḥmān Sihvārvī of the Deoband school. In his book Islām kā iqtiṣādī niẓām he attempts to interprete socialism within an Islamic framework by claiming that the concentration of wealth in the hands of an elite was against Qur'ānic teachings. The Qur'ān, in his interpretation, prescribes zakāt (the alms tax) on a Muslim's income as a means of ensuring that wealth was equally distributed among all segments of society. Those whom God has blessed with wealth, intelligence, and skills have an obligation to share with the less privileged. Similar in orientation to ῾Ubaidullāh Sindhī and Sihvārvī was Ḥasrat Mūhānī (d. 1951), an unusually talented poet responsible for introducing sociopolitical subjects into the ghazal, a poetic genre usually reserved for expressing the tragedies of unfulfilled love. His ghazals, considered by many to be literary masterpieces (he has been honored with the title “prince of ghazal writers”), have a powerful socialist message: Islam was socialistic in its essence. In recent times, the poet perhaps most renowned for his biting criticism of the social system, especially in Pakistan, was Faiẓ Aḥmad Faiẓ (d. 1984); however, like many contemporary Urdu members of the Progressive Writers Movement, he did not explicitly deal with Islam or Islamic reform.

Rather different was the versatile Ḥasan Niẓāmī (d. 1955), a prolific writer with more than one hundred books and articles on an astonishing range of topics to his credit. The majority of these were in simple, smooth‐flowing, and attractive Urdu, which partially explains their enormous popularity. Ḥasan Niẓāmī was active in the Tablīgh, an Islamic movement intended to counteract the attempts of Hindu reformists to reconvert former Hindus. Through its literature and eloquent preachers, the Tablīgh called for stronger Islamic religious education, especially for the uneducated masses who still observed many Hindu customs. In a rather different context, the call for a total islamization of Muslim life was also the central theme in the right‐wing ideology of Sayyid Abu al‐῾Alā Mawdūdī (d. 1979). Mawdūdī and his activist organization, the Jamā῾at‐i Islāmī, launched the most serious challenge to liberal and modernist interpretations of Islam in recent times, disseminating their ideas through the Urdu journal Tarjumān al‐Qur'ān. Mawdūdī's writings, which have been translated into many languages, were especially critical of the secular leadership of Pakistan and the Western values prevalent among the Muslim elite. Instead, Mawdūdī advocated the establishment of a theocracy governed by a highly elaborated and codified sharī῾ah interpreted by qualified religious scholars. [See the biography of Mawdūdī.]

Antithetical to Mawdūdī was Ghulām Aḥmad Parvez, a civil servant associated with a journal named after one of Iqbal's poems urging Muslims to seek new forms of creativity—ulū῾i Islām (The Rise of Islam). Parvez and his small group of followers proposed a rather daring interpretation of Qur'ānic vocabulary and concepts in a special four‐volume dictionary; they also dismissed the validity of ḥadīth as a basis for building an Islamic society. According to Parvez, the precarious state of Islam in modern times was the result of the suppression of the open and simple original religion by the traditional legalistic interpretations of the ῾ulamā'. Not surprisingly, several religious scholars countered by declaring him an apostate.

In summary, Urdu literature in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries has witnessed a blossoming of work in both poetry and prose dealing with Islamic themes. The writers surveyed here reflect different strands within Indo‐Muslim society as it has continued attempts to define itself in a changing sociopolitical environment. In giving literary expression to these strands, Urdu writers differed not only in the genres they chose but also in the traditions that inspired them. They have varied greatly in their interpretations of the role of Islam and the duties of a believing Muslim in modern society. Although collectively they represent an entire spectrum of opinions and views, each would agree in his own way with the Qur'ānic verse, “God changes not what is in a people until they change what is in themselves” (surah 13.11).

See also Islam, article on Islam in South Asia.


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