“AN interesting thing that I noted while studying the decline of the Roman Empire is that the people of the Roman Empire had little interest in knowledge and sciences, especially during the period leading to their decline,” wrote Dr Agha Iftikhar Hussain in his marvellous though little-known work ‘Qaumon ki shikast-o-zavaal ke asbaab ka mutaalea’, or the study of reasons for the fall and decline of nations, published some 35 years ago by Majlis-i-Taraqqi-i-Adab, Lahore.
What Agha sahib has written in detail about the fall and decline of nations is worth studying and this book reflects at least some characteristics of Pakistani nation. In fact, some of the aspects described by him have a chilling resemblance with what we see in our society today in particular and in Muslim societies around the world in general. He says that during the period of decline, the Romans “instead of gaining knowledge, had engaged themselves rather in martial arts, fine arts, poetry, oratory, music, architecture and sports. Teaching, considered one of the most respectable professions in Greek society, was looked down upon by Romans. ... The most talented individuals of society became soldiers, civil servants, poets, orators, actors and sportsmen and education was left to the slaves. Yes, slaves taught their masters’ children who after the class would beat up these very slaves — or their teachers”.
Romans had to pay the price for this disrespect to knowledge and scholarship in the shape of total decline and fall, says Agha sahib.
He then discusses some mental or intellectual trends that have contributed to the decline of several nations in history and were prevalent in Pakistani society at the time of the publication of the book (and I am sorry to add that they persist). These trends, if described in a nutshell, were (or are): opposition to Rationalism; intolerance; a penchant for type of arts and literature which are generally based on emotionalism; a tussle between traditionalism and progressive trends; Romanticism, and this includes glorifying the past and self-glorification. These trends, Agha sahib says, led to a total decline which in turn resulted in a thousand-year-long dark night during the Middle Ages. It was for the Muslim scientists and philosophers to awaken Europe form this deep slumber but then, laments Agha Sahib, Muslims went to sleep and the West has been shaking Muslims for the last 800 years to wake them up.
Many of the readers must be wondering who this gentleman was. They are justified because little or nothing has been written about Dr Agha Iftikhar Hussain and the nation whose future he was worried about conveniently ignored and forgot him. Dr Hussain was a civil servant but his first love was knowledge and philosophy. He was a philosopher, historian, novelist, research scholar, translator and teacher.
Agha Iftikhar Hussain was born in Delhi on April 17, 1921. His father, Agha Mukhtar Hussain, was an engineer and a descendent of an Iranian Qazalbash family. His paternal uncle Aijaz Hussain was a renowned lawyer and activist of the All India Muslim League. Agha sahib’s mother was a daughter of Allama Tajver Najeebabadi, a well-known poet and writer of Urdu.
Having passed BA Honours in Philosophy from Aligarh Muslim University in 1942, Agha sahib took commission in armed forces. But the drills proved to be a bit too much for him and he had to quit. He then landed a job at Hyderabad Deccan as an assistant secretary of the public service commission in 1947. In 1950, he migrated to Pakistan and was absorbed as an assistant secretary of the federal public service commission. He was sent to London for a training course in 1960 and then he spent two years in France for training in public administration. Agha sahib learned French and mastered it. He then in 1967 went to Paris’s Sorbonne University for a PhD in administrative science and wrote his dissertation in French. On returning home, he was awarded ‘Tamgha-i-Quaid-i-Azam’ and was made federal public service commission’s deputy director, and later director.
But Agha sahib was not intended for the officialdom by his Creator. He had shown a knack for gaining knowledge and writing at an early age. In 1946, when 25, he published Fikr-i-Farang, his first book, a brief history of modern western philosophy. The same year, he published Nukta cheen hai gham-i-dil, an Urdu translation of George Bernard Shaw’s play ‘Man and superman’. His book Europe mein tehqeeqi mutaale, published in 1967, is a collection of research papers for which he had gathered material during his stay in Europe. The papers discuss some literary, historical, philosophical and cultural aspects of Urdu, orientalists, French history, French culture, French literature and Urdu and Ghalib studies in Europe.
His book Europe mein Urdu, published in 1968, not only traces Urdu manuscripts in European libraries but also discusses the European educational institutions where Urdu was being taught and the research work done in Europe about Urdu. An offshoot of this work is another book of his titled Makhtootaat-i-Paris. It is a catalogue of Urdu, Persian, Punjabi and Sindhi manuscripts preserved in Paris’s Bibliotheque Nationale de France, or the National Library of France, and Guimet Museum, which is known for Asian art. Agha sahib loved French literature and culture. He penned two historical novels on the French Revolution — Badshah ka khoon and Paris ki aik raat.
Having retired in 1981, Agha sahib joined Islamabad’s Quaid-i-Azam University as visiting professor. But he did not live long enough after the retirement to work on his research projects and to pen the books he intended. He died in Islamabad on May 31, 1984.
After his death, Ahmed Nadeem Qasmi published an article on him in his magazine Funoon. Written by Khawar Naqvi, it provides the reader with some basic facts about Agha Sahib’s life and works. Aside from that, very little was written about the scholar who pondered the factors that contribute to the fall of nations. One factor that he did not mention is, perhaps, forgetting the scholars and worshipping the showbiz personalities. Pity the nation that forgets its real heroes and loves the false ones!
Published in Dawn, May 26th, 2014