Muslim ethos in Indian literature
By Mohammad Hassan
Literature is often described as he conscience of a nation. It mirrors the finer sensibility of a people and denotes their intimate responses to the everyday challenges of national life. Hence the cultural ethos of a community is perhaps most faithfully represented in literature, particularly poetry.
Indian Muslims have always been such an integral part of the nation, that it will be nearly impossible to identify their distinct role without considering the whole gamut of the cultural heritage. Practically in all modern Indian languages, their role has been quite significant for one cannot discuss Bengali without Nazrul Islam, or Punjabi without Waris Shah or Kashmiri without Habba Khatoon, or Awadhi without Jaisi or Brij Bhasha without Rahiman or Tamil without Abdur Rahman or Malayalam without K T Mohammad or, for that matter Indian literature without Ghalib; the list is endless.
But let's start from the beginning. Islam came to India in the 8th century and the first Muslims who arrived were the Arabs who landed in Kerala as traders and were warmly received by the Zomorin. Undoubtedly Indo-Arab relations go much further back than the advent of Islam. But the new religion brought by Prophet Mohammad emphasized mono-theism with great vigor and, as a corollary advocated and to a great extent, practiced equality among men of different race, colour and social strata. This message of equality attracted a large number of converts and it soon spread to other parts of the land.
The second major contact developed in Sind-not as traders but as conquerors for here Mohammad Bin Qasim, an Arab lad of 14 years conquered a part of Sind in 712 AD as a reprisal to the looting of a ship of Arab pilgrims by Raja Dahir of Sind. This contact, though political had a cultural impact and it was to this that the Sindhi language and literature owe their origin. To this day, Sindhi is written in a modified Arabic script and bears a strong component of Arab and Islamic influence in the tone and tenor of its poetry.
And it was here that Abdul Latif Bhitai composed his songs of mystic devotion and human love. A new era had already began- the era of cosmopolitan mystic vision.
Undoubtedly mysticism is no monopoly of Islam but in the centuries that followed, several groups of Muslim mystics so swarmed over parts of North India that mysticism began to acquire as a Muslim face. Till today, Khwaja Moinuddin Chishti who came from Iraq in the 12th century to settle down in Ajmer as a lonely immigrant is held in high esteem both by Hindus and Muslims and the compositions of one of his disciples, Baba Farid, form part of the holy book of the Sikhs - the Guru Granth Sahib. Both of them emphasized the concept of the equality of man and sang of man's total submergence in the divine existence of God Almighty. The idea caught on and spread with speed and alacrity to practically all the dialects and languages of the land, and assumed different shapes and forms.
One of these was that of allegory and symbolism. Human existence was symbolized as a woman in love who has been unwittingly separated from her beloved and consequently sings the songs of separation form her divine love and thirsts for re-union. Hence, the poet- or human existence was portrayed as a woman in love while God was taken to be the separated husband.
This also took the form of Bara-masa, (Twelve months) in which the damsel describes the charms of every season, month by month, and implores her beloved to take pity on her and to join her in enjoying the seasonal blessings. The first available Bara-masa was written by Addiman, who is believed to be a convert to Islam named Abdur Rahman. He belonged perhaps to the area between the North West Frontier Province (NWFP)and Sind in the 12th century, according to Hazari Prasad Dwivedi and Vishwanath Tripathi, the first editor of the treatise, Sandesh Rasak and this happens to be the first literary work traceable in Awhat, the language deemed the precursor of the present Hindi and Urdu.
This marks the great beginning in practically all-modern Indian languages. The mystic era had begun. The famous Indian historian Dr. Tara Chand has traced the origin and development of the Bhakti movement in the south and its spreading in the north to the impact of Islam and Muslim poets and saints played a very significant part therein.
In Hindi, for instance even before the advent of the four recognized categories of Bhakti poetry Gyana-Kshri, Prem Margi Sufi, Ram Bhakti and Krishna Bhakti , the emergence of Amir Khusrau was noticeable . Though mainly a Persian poet, born in Patiali (Uttar Pradesh) or, according to some scholars, in Delhi Khusrau was a devout mystic and disciple of the Sufi saint Hazrat Nizamuddin Auslia of Delhi, and his bridal songs, riddles and stray couplets mark the beginning of poetry in a mixed language with an amalgam of Khari Boli grammatical syntax and a sprinkling of Turkish, Persian and Arabic words. He sings praises of his motherland and mixes with the common man of his times so as to give unhampered expression to his feelings with exuberance and spontaneity.
Later on Kabir (whom several scholars consider Muslim) and his followers wrote poetry of iconoclastic humanism and robust commonsense in the Gyana-Kshri and Nirgun Bhakti which are similar in not worshipping idols and believing in the non-material existence of God. Syed Mohammad Jaisi's Padmavat, on the other hand, was the allegorical and anecdotal exposition of man's quest for Divine Beauty, and of self-abnegation in the process, as narrated in the form of Alauddin Khiliji's abortive attempt to conquer Padmini, who burns herself to death and escapes surrender. And the followers of Jaisi's philosophy and diction were many, who adorn the ranks of Prem Margi Sufi poets, including Mulla Daud, Qutban and Manjhan.
Then came the Krishna Bhaktas and these also include a number of Muslim poets. Sri Krishna has often been symbolized as the romantic embodiment of divine existence and not only in Brij Bhasha Hindi poetry of the 16th century but also in Urdu poetry of the 20th century. Poets like Maulana Hasrat Mohani took pride in proclaiming himself a Krishna Bhakt, Hence the continuing tradition from Ras Khan (the famous Brij Bhasha poet) to Hasrat Mohani.
Of course, Riti Kal of Brij Bhasha Hindi poetry abounds in Muslim names and these includes some very distinguished poets, like Akbar's Minister Abdur Rahim Khan Khanan whose dohas are exemplary.
Another branch of the Khari Boli developed as Urdu literature, which claims Amir Khusrau as the common ancestor and extends its frontiers to Gujarat and Deccan (mainly parts of Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Maharashtra), in the form of Gujri and Deccani. In these literary traditions, too, Indian Muslims played a significant, even predominating, role. In Gujarat, saint poets like Mahmud Daryai, Miranji, Janam and Khub Mohammad Chishti enriched the allegorical mystic tradition while in far off Deccan, first under the Bahmani Kingdom and later on under the Bijapur, Golconda and Ahmadnagar Kingdoms, a whole corpus of literary writings developed with Muslim authorship.
Even prose pieces in Deccani like sab Ras of Wajhi (of Golconda) were written and acclaimed. Wajhi's is a perfect allegory with Beauty, Reason and Heart as symbolic characters and, according to some, draws heavily from a Persian mystic's work and, according to others from Prabhad Chandra Uday, an Indian classic. Earlier, a Muslim saint-disciple of Nizamuddin Aulia of Delhi, living in Gulbarga (Karnataka) had written copiously in prose and poetry for propagating his humanistic teachings, bearing close resemblances with Hindu mystic thought.
In Bijapur and Golconda kings, saints, courtiers and itinerant scholars and poets, all made their contribution in making an indigenous language rich. These included the Muslim ruling monarch Quli Qutub Shah, the first Urdu poet with a regular collection and poets like Nizami, Nusrati, Ibn-Inishati, Ghannasi, Hashmi and a host of prose-stylists like Burhanuddin Janam, Aminuddin Aala, Miran Yakub and others. That their writings are enriched by their cultural environs is beyond doubt as they sought to achieve a blend of cosmopolitan elements with the indigenous traditions.
The development of Urdu language and literature in the north began rather late but the imprint of Indian Muslims on it is so unmistakable that it has been wrongly identified with them though a galaxy of non-Muslim Urdu writers adorn the pages of literary history.
Urdu literature in the north flourished mainly in the 18th and 19th centuries in Delhi , Uttar Pradesh and Bihar where masnavi writers like Afzal, Mir, Mir Asar and Mir Hasan continued to enrich and extend the tradition of allegorical and non-allegorical romantic poetic tales and started writing ghazals in Urdu, thus combining earthly romance with deeper metaphysical thought pattern. Of course, Muslim poets played an important part in giving shape to this new idiom, which heralded a new cultural climate - the climate of secularism, cosmopolitanism and urban sophistication.
The stalwarts included Mir Taqi Mir and Mirza Asadullah Khan Ghalib in Delhi whose Catholicism and free-thinking earned for them an eternal place in the hearts of millions; Agha Hasan Amanat's Inder sabha in 1846 attempted an amalgam of Hindu mythology with Awadh culture and ushered in a new era in Indian drama; Mir Anis' religious epics on the battle of Karbala gave its Arab characters local habitation and an Indian look the inimitable Nazeer Akbarabadi of Agra identified himself with the common man and wrote poems on everyday subjects like bread, water melons and the rainy season.
Urdu literature by itself stands witness to the involvement and identification of Indian Muslims with the Indian ethos. Urdu literature particularly the ghazal, gave typical expression to the agony and ecstasy of the national scene throughout the ages. Of course, non-Muslim writers participated equally in the process but any literature can be justly proud of poets like Mir, Ghalib, Iqbal and Josh Malihabadi; fiction writers and movelists like Nazeer Ahmed, Mirza Mohammad Hadi Ruswa, Abdul Haleem Sharar, Sajjad Yaldram, and in our own times, Qurratulain Hyder, Ismat Chughtai, Jilani Bano, Hayatullah Ansari and Khwaja Ahmed Abbas; prose writers like Abul Kalam Azad, Qazi Abdul Ghaffar and Rashid Ahmed Siddiqi; and dramatists like Agha Hasan Amanat, Agha Hashr, Imtiaz Ali Taj and Mohammad Mujib. The whole galaxy of progressive writers who lit the fire for the independence struggle and stormed the citadel of conservatism and obscurantism comprises of names like Faiz, Majaz, Makhdoom Mohiuddin , Parvez Shahidi, Ali Sardar Jafri, Jan Nisar Akhtar, Sahir Ludhianvi, Kaifi Azmi and Majrooh Sultuanpuri. No history of Indian literature can be complete without mentioning the literary and artistic sensibility brought about by Urdu poets and literatures. Every one of them deserves a whole chapter for his or her achievements. K.A. Abbas, for instance, left an indelible mark not only as a storywriter or a novelist but also as a distinguished filmmaker and outstanding journalists.
Iqbal by his philosophy of Self aroused the Asian nations from their long slumber and gave them the message of self-reliance and dignity. His clarion call for the emancipation of the subject nations of the Orient added a new dimension to contemporary literature. Similarly Josh Malihabadi's revolutionary poetry and Abul Kalam Azad's fiery writings made the struggle for national independence an article of faith and extended the frontiers of literary consciousness.
In Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, the cradles of Urdu and Hindi Khari Boli literatures the galaxy of great names in both poety and prose include Rasikh, Shad, Hasrat Mohani, Jigar, Josh and innumerable others. Yet the Indian Muslims contribution to folk literature of the area should not be overlooked. In local dialects as well as in Khari Boli folk idiom. Muslim writers and composers have made their mark in Kajri, Laoni and other popular folk forms. Recently, Azhar Husain Faruqi's Uttar Pradesh ke lok geet gives a long list of Muslim composers and these represent only a portion of such contribution.
But the contribution of Indian Muslims was by no means restricted only to Urdu literature. In Punjab literature, for instance, mystics and saints left their own indelible marks. Waris Shah and Bulhe Shah composed classics in the 18th century, which are yet to be surpassed in excellence and acceptability. Even when the subcontinent was divided into two hostile countries, India and Pakistan and the border state of Punjab, the land of five rivers, was itself partitioned, the gathering of Punjab soldiers on both sides of the frontier could be seen listening to or reciting Waris Shah's epic Heer Ranjha jointly in the dead of night.
Further North, Kashmiri literature also boasts of its Indian Muslim authors, the greatest of them being, perhaps, Habba Khatoon, a plain peasant girl wedded to a ruling monarch and sharing his destiny in glory and Suffering. Then comes Mahjur, who sang songs of liberty and social justice and enthused Kashmiris to wrest their rights with courage and determination. Of course, these two names are only representative of dozens of other such writers and poets.
Further east, the development of Bengali literature, according to some literary historians, owes much to the patronage of Muslim kings of Bengal. Since its very inception, Muslim poets and writers have been in the vanguard of Bengali literature but the stature of Qazi Nazrul Islam remains unsurpassed. His poetic talent came to a sudden flowering when lying in a trench in a 21-day ambush during the Second World War and he broke into revolutionary song. Nazrul stands next to Tagore in his appeal and artistic excellence and his poetry inspired millions of Bengali-speaking people of India and Bangladesh in their struggle for independence. In fact, Nazrul inspired poets of all the modern Indian languages and provided a model for Josh Mahilabadi in Urdu, Subhramaniam Bharati in Tamil, Vallathal in Malayalam and Dinkar in Hindi.
Bengali literature can boast of other Muslim writers and composers, among them the outstanding literary critic, Kazi Abdul Wudood, Communist writer and intellectual Muzaffar Ahmad and of course, the innumerable Muslim singers and minstrel poets who roam the countryside and compose and sing Baul poetry.
Further down, we come across Oriya in which Mughal tamasha, a distinct form of folk drama, owes its origin mainly to Muslim writers. In Tamil, Abdur Rahman is still considered a major poet. In the sister languages of Kannada and Telugu, the present writer has limited information but the first Urdu poet with a regular poetic collection, the Golconda king, Quli Qutub Shah was also credited to be a Telugu poet. In Marathi, and Gujarati too, Muslim writers made their mark while in Malayalam, the stories and novels of K T Mohammad gained distinction.
This is only a cursory outline of the Muslim contribution to the various and modern Indian languages and literatures. But merely listing names of Muslim poets and writers, does not do justice to their role nor does it evaluate the true nature, extend and depth of their impact. This impact was not restricted only to Muslim writers but percolated to all levels and all kinds of writers irrespective of their religious fidelities.
What does this impact really mean in terms of the literary structure of these languages?
Firstly, it must be appreciated that the word Muslim denotes a much wider cultural domain than Islam. Islam was a set of beliefs but Muslims of different countries, though adhering to these common beliefs, developed their own cultural identities in conjunction with their indigenous environments. Islam for instance, forbids, or at least discourages all arts, frowns on the practice of music, dance and sculpture and deprecates painting, yet in all these fields Indian Muslims, and devout Muslims at that, earned distinction. It has often been the case that the artistic talent of Muslims in the forbidden arts found expression either in permitted media (for example, the expression of painting talent in calligraphy or of sculpture in the carving of Quranic verses on the Qutub Minar) or in the innovative transfer of these talents to other media. Hence the Muslim contribution to literature and poetry should be taken in this context, which in some measure, explains the popularity enjoyed by poetry among Muslims in general so that couplets form part of ordinary everyday conversation.
The second important factor that should be noted is that this contribution was basically secular and cosmopolitan in character. Secular - because Muslim poets and men of letters could not identify themselves with Hindu religious or devotional poetry (barring instances where it had been raised to mystical or allegorical heights) and hence their writings, both in poetry and prose, opened the gates of secular and materialist subjects. What sustained this new poetic idiom was its cosmopolitanism.
To bracket this cosmopolitanism with alien influences would be erroneous. The fact remains that the Turco-Iranian cultural tradition was, in the Dark Ages, the predominant world tradition. Europe was still to emerge as the new arbiter of human destiny and Arabs were dispensing the knowledge acquired from Greek sources, through translations. The Turco-Iranian tradition had absorbed this corpus of knowledge and had become its champion in Asia and the Middle East. Hence, the adoption, or acceptance of these Turco-Iranian influences meant imbibing the impact of the then pervading world culture.
Thirdly, it should also be borne in mind that Muslim contact was not primarily through administrators or rulers but mainly through traders (who purchased handicrafts and other manufactured goods and materials from the Indian towns or trade centres and sold them in Central Asian and West Asian courts and markets), Sufi saints, scholars and mercenary soldiers. Consequently, the adoption of these influences was the acceptance of world cultural norms and values of that period. The literary exchanges between Turco-Iranian traditions and modern Indian languages were therefore a part of this transaction, which can be compared to the impact of the English language and literature on various Indian languages today.
The Indian Muslim writer's contribution to various modern Indian languages and literatures, therefore, is two-fold: first in creating a secular and cosmopolitan literary idiom, and second in forging a new syntactical conciseness and close-knit poetic and literary expression mainly brought about as part of this Turco-Iranian impact.
Though very close to Sanskrit, old Persian had taken a different syntactical line of development. To discuss in detail the nature of the syntactical influences of the Turco-Persian traditions on the modern Indian languages is beyond the scope of this essay but the use of izafat (conjunctional lower apostrophe) alone gave much greater compactness and conciseness to expression.
The same holds good in the case of symbols- and non-religious and non-mythical symbols at that. The Indian Muslim writers in many cases revolutionized the literary idiom by introducing new symbols or by communicating a different conceptual system through old and familiar images and symbols. Even Nazrul Islam, who is greatly influenced by Hindu mythological symbols, introduced several new dimensions to them and introduced a series of symbols from the Turco-Iranian tradition.
The system of symbolism was used in a peculiar way by the ghazal, a poetic genre born in Arabic as an introductory digressive part of Qasida (eulogy) poetry which came to flowering in Persia as a separate form with scattered self-contained couplets bound together by common rhyme and ending with a subjective tone and symbolic expression of its own. Even though the ghazal symbols were not altogether indigenous, its popularity in practically all the modern Indian languages is due to its compact subjectivity and generalised symbolism, which covers at once different fields of human activity. For instance, a ghazal couplet, though apparently addressed to one's beloved can thanks to the prevailing generality of ghazal symbols be recited as a political statement. Hence, the ghazal as poetic form remains popular in Hindi, Marathi, Gujarati, Punjabi, Bengali and several other languages. Not exclusively a contribution of Muslims alone, it has however a Muslim connexion.
This clearly shows that the Muslim contribution to Indian languages and literatures has been a source of strengthening its cosmopolitan links and giving it a modern, secular and worldly look. In fact, this literary contribution was a part of the composite culture, which brought the diverse religious and regional identities together and tried to develop it into a national culture. Unfortunately, the process was rudely interrupted by a long spell of British rule which erected various barriers between the various components and constituents of this composite cultural ethos and the final act of the country's partition undermined the very basis of this emerging synthesis.
In the post-Independence period, Urdu has suffered the greatest setback with total exile from most of the north Indian states and this exile covers schools, libraries, government offices and courts. Yet mushairas are held in almost every important town and attract large crowds. ghazal concerts are a craze and immediate commercial success. Of late, however, Urdu has been accorded the status of the second official language in Bihar and UP and about ten Urdu Academies and a Bureau for Promotion of Urdu have been set up in several states and at the centre.
While Muslim writers are among the prominent literary authors of various Indian languages, in many cases, a sense of alienation separates them from their fellow writers. Recurrent communal Hindu-Muslim riots breed extremists on both ends and create distrust and insecurity. Hence the psyche of the Indian Muslim writer, whether writing in Urdu or Malayalam or Marathi, experiences an ordeal different from his compatriots.
Add to this, the rise of fundamentalism, the eleven year rule of Pakistani military dictators and the reign of orthodox papacy of Imam Khomeini of Iran, which have been posing serious threats to liberalism and rationalism to Muslims everywhere in the world and we get a complete, or a near complete, picture of the context an average Indian Muslim writer finds himself in.
Yet there is a silver lining to this dismal panorama. A number of Indian Muslim writers view their own preservation as well as that of the composite culture evolved through centuries of communion as a part of the defence of democratic values in our land. This crusade cannot be waged and won in isolation but with wider, much wider, cooperation and support of the people. And it is for this that writers, and among them Muslim writers too, though it fit to break the conventional framework of communication media and reach the common man through street theatre. Habib Tanvir attempted to mobilize the actual man in the street and, without any commercialized make-up, express through him the woes and sufferings of a suffocated society. Safdar Hashmi took street theatre to the masses even more vigorously and addressed them on burning topics directly connected with their own lives. For the temerity of criticizing the Establishment he paid the price with his own life, and symbolized the participation and involvement of Indian Muslims in the struggle of making India a safer and a better place to live and in preserving the highest values of a composite culture evolved during centuries of our history.
The author is a Professor in Urdu at the Center of Indian Languages, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. He has written 70 books and is an Urdu playwright and literary critic.