Imagining Pakistan I: Hali

Posted by sepoy on August 11, 2004 · 8 mins read

In a few days, Pakistanis (and Indians) will celebrate Independence. At midnight, August 14 1947 the twin states of India and Pakistan were released from British dominion. To get up to that day, I thought it worthwhile to post some signposts from the journey that culminated in 1947. In the next few days, I will post some selections from texts and intellectuals that shaped the Muslim response to British Raj in the late c. 19th and early c. 20th. Today is Altaf Hussain Hali (1837-1914).
For all kinds of purposes, 1857 is the event / year that marks a profound shift in the nature of British rule, communal identity and the idea of nation in India. In 1879, Maulana Altaf Hussein Hali sat to eulogize the state of Muslims in the world. His Musaddas: Madd o Jazr-e Islam (The Flow and Ebb of Islam) was a lament on a world gone awry where kings had turned paupers and right was crushed by might. Writing in the marsiya style (six line verse - three rhyming couplets), he took to enumerate the decline of the Muslim ummah. The work had a profound effect on the generation of Muslim intellectuals that led the nationalist struggle against British (the Aligarh Generation). In this poem, Hali compared contemporary Muslims with the "glorious" past of Islam:

Come! and see our abysmal decadence
See the fall of Islam without recovery
Once you see the ebb of our sea,
Never shall you believe that a flow succeeds every ebb!

Decline. It became the paradigm for conceptualizing Muslim past. By tying, Islam's dominance to the political power of Muslims in India, this paradigm forced all "solutions" to the realm of the politics. All the reformists, revivalists and revolutionists that came after Hali took as their goal the establishment of an Islamic State. Of course, colonialism had a little something to do with all that but let's stick to the program today, shall we?
Go read a selection from Hali's Musaddas below the fold. It is largely taken from Christopher Shackle and Javed Majed's translation but I have taken some liberties here and there. It talks about the state of contemporary religious leaders (a topic dear to my heart). And yes, by contemporary I mean 2004.

The state of religion of Islam

But as for that dilapidated hall of true religion,
whose pillars have been tottering for ages.
Which will remain in the world only a few days more,
and which the Muslims will never again find.
Friends have withdrawn their attention from it,
the only guardian remaining, is God.

The lack of holy men

The sufi sanctuaries lie in ruins,
those places of hope for beggars and kings alike.
Where the paths to hidden knowledge existed,
where the glances of angels used to fall.
Where are those snares of divine longing?
where are those men of god?

The lack of religious experts

Where are those masters of the Sharia?
where are the commentators of Traditions?
Where are those principalists, those controversalists?
where are the teachers of interpretations?
The gathering which was lit brilliantly yesterday,
na'er a single lamp flickers there today.

The lack of religious books

Where are those archives of religious books?
where are those manisfestations of divine science?
Such a cold wind has blown upon this festive gathering,
that the torches of divine fire are utterly extinguished.
No furnishing nor company remain,
no flask nor instrument, no musician nor cupbearer.

Those who claim knowledge

Many, make themselves out to be descendants of holiness,
without having any excellence in their self.
They take great pride in the fact,
that their ancestors were God's chosen.
They go around, working false wonders,
they eat, by robbing their disciples.

These are the ones who journey on the mystic way,
whose station lies beyond Holy Law.
It is with them that revelation and miracles stay,
in their control is the fate of people.
They are the objects of devotion, and these are the followers,
they are the Junaids, and these are the Bayazids now.

Contemporary Theologians

To make speeches that incite hatred,
to compose writings that wound the heart.
To despise God's sinful creatures,
to brand fellow Muslims infidels.
That is the way of our theologians,
this is the method of our guides.

If someone goes to ask them a question,
he will come back with a heavy burden.
If, unfortunately, he has some doubt about the matter,
he will be branded with the title of Damned.
If he openly utters an objection,
it will be difficult for him to escape unharmed.

Sometimes they make the veins in their neck swell,
sometimes they foam at the mouth.
Sometimes they call him 'pig' and 'dog',
sometimes they raise their staff to strike.
They (May the evil eye be far) are pillars of our religion,
they are the exemplars of the gentleness of the Prophet.

If a man wishes to be happy in their company,
it is a must that he be a Muslim by community.
That he should have the mark of prostration visible on his forehead,
that there should not be any shortcoming in his observance.
His mustache be short, his beard uncurl'd,
his trouser cut the proper length.

That in all matters, he agree with His Reverence,
that he speak with the same voice on all Law.
That he be suspicious of his master's opponents,
and utter praise of all his fellow disciples.
If he is not like this, he is an outcast from his religion,
unfit to associate with its revered elders.

The commands of Shari'a were so compassionate,
that even the Jews and Christians admired them.
The entire Qur'an is a testament to their mildness,
the Prophet himself proclaimed, 'Religion is easy'.
But they have made it so dificult,
that believers now consider it a burden.

They have given believers no guidance in morality,
nor produced piety in their hearts.
They have so increased extra commandments,
that there is no escape even for a moment.
The religion that was the spring of gentle goodness,
they turned into dirty water left after bathing and ablution.

In their hearts is hatred for those who think,
Insistence upon tradition is injurious.
The whole basis of their practice lies in fatwas,
their every opinion is a substitute for Qur'an.

Where Traditions collide,
they never choose the simpler one.
Where reason finds fault,
they consider it the basis of religion.
Only in name does the Prophet and the Book remain,
they have no more use for either the Book or the Prophet.


Jonathan Dresner | August 11, 2004

Classic prophetic literature. Inspirational and idealistic, conservative and critical.

Nitin | August 12, 2004

Sepoy, Good stuff. Keep them coming.

Sohail Ahmed | August 12, 2004

Good read. Thanks because I might have continued to miss it. But a point that I want to make. I believe that political element has always been part of Islam. With two great empires on either sides, Persian and Roman, political strength was must for survival of the early Islamic society. In fact, one of the things that isolated tribes of Arabia found appealing in Islam was that it offered political umbrella and protection. Consequently, Muslims always think in terms of an Islamic Empire, whether or not it exists in reality. By the same token, decline is always thought of as political. However, it ought to be noted that the Tablighi movement (proselytization)which is a little more than half a century old bears no political aspirations; it aims at social reform.

Procrastination | August 14, 2004

Happy Independence Day To all Pakistanis. And to Indians tomorrow. I don’t have the time to write something for the occasion, but Chapati Mystery has a few posts discussing some personalities: Altaf Hussain Hali Muhammad Ali Johar Muhammad Iqbal Chapati Mystery also ha...

Prashant Keshavmurthy | August 10, 2010

I think "tying Islam's dominance to the political power of Muslims in India" led to two major and opposite solutions: only one of them was political and wanted an Islamic state. The other was social-intellectual reform that was premised precisely on the assumption that Muslim politics was impossible in British India. It was precisely because Zakaullah, Shibli and some others like Sharar thought Muslim political participation impossible at the time that they resorted to reading and writing Muslim history as a means to intellectual reform. Shibli's 5 volume history of Persian poetry that periodizes its topic according to Muslim dynasties significantly stops short of Indian or late Mughal Persian poetry, thus distancing his object in time from his present when scholarship substituted what had been politics. This was also Shibli's motivation in his essay urging Muslims to obey their non-Muslim rulers, citing Hadis to bolster his point.