Four decades after his death, Muhammad Hasan Askari continues to be held in awe by critics of the traditionalist school of thought and his critical and theoretical views on modernism remain relevant. But to those who see Askari’s writings in their entirety, it becomes evident that he had been advocating the same point of view all along, notwithstanding his apparently different early stance.
By his own account, Askari was not very sympathetic to religion and morals earlier in his literary career. After his initial tilt towards the Progressive Writers’ Movement, he drifted swiftly away as their increased emphasis on communism disillusioned him. Born in Uttar Pradesh (India) and acquiring a Masters degree in English literature from the University of Allahabad, Askari wrote Urdu short stories, but later quit to pen mainly critical essays and columns. He migrated to Pakistan, taught English, wrote in Urdu, showed religious leanings, criticised the Progressives, sparked a debate as to what Pakistani literature should be and why writers should be loyal to the state, added Islamic elements to his theory of Pakistani literature, declared that Urdu literature had become “decadent” and “static” and ultimately announced “the death of Urdu literature.” On most occasions the reaction from his contemporaries, especially leftists and modernists, was deafening. Askari created ripples that never really stopped hitting the shore, though his so-called metamorphosis was not overnight and was, in fact, the result of deep and continued study.
But all this happened in the 1940s and 1950s. In the 1960s, Askari went through another change of heart. Under the influence of some Islamic scholars — notably Maulana Ashraf Ali Thanvi — and some French writers and intellectuals such as René Guénon (who later became Abdul Wahid Yahya), Askari withdrew from literature: when a TV producer approached him for a programme on Ghalib, Askari is famously quoted as saying “Ghalib? Kaun Ghalib?” [Ghalib? Ghalib who?] Instead of writing about literature, he wrote a booklet summarising Western philosophers’ thoughts, highlighting where and how Western philosophies and cultures “were led astray.” His article ‘Jadidiyet’ underscored the “fallacies” of modernism. He began translating Ma’arif-ul-Quran, the Holy Quran’s Urdu exegesis by Mufti Muhammad Shafi, into English, but only completed the first of the 30 parts. He also rendered Thanvi’s book Al Intibahaat-ul-Mufeedah into English under the title Answer to Modernism. A profound and prolonged study of Western literatures, French intellectuals, and some Islamic scholars and mystics such as Ibn-e-Arabi were a major influence on the life and thought of Askari, but it did not happen overnight or during the last couple of decades of his life, though some critics would like to have us believe otherwise.
A new trove of letters illuminates Hasan Askari’s relationships with his contemporaries
Askari was held in awe in his lifetime, too, as the adulatory and reverential letters addressed to him — some of which were written in the 1940s and 1950s — show. Many of the letter-writers were to later shine as greats themselves; others were bigwigs of yesteryears.
Discovered and edited by Muhammad Hasan Musanna and Muhammad Hasan Raabe, these letters have now been compiled, annotated, and published in the volume Askari ke Naam Nau Daryaft Khutoot. Annotations are by Musanna. Dr Aziz Ibn-ul-Hasan’s annotations have been merged with his introduction, a 60-page, erudite commentary on Askari’s life, works, thought, his contemporaries, and the contents of the letters. Raabe has translated letters written in English and Qaiser Shehzad has translated letters from French into Urdu.
The letters offer rare glimpses into the lives of Askari’s contemporaries and the nature of their relationships. While many letter-writers appear to be in agreement with Askari on certain issues, some stand poles apart.
“It is not only what one has written that determines one’s literary stature, but also the attitude and relationship with one’s contemporaries and their opinion about one that reveals a lot,” writes Dr Hasan in his intro. “And by that yardstick,” he adds, “... Askari was a unique personality. But many aspects of his life and personality were either unknown or there simply was not enough documentary evidence to take them into account.”
Dr Hasan seems quite sympathetic to Askari as Dr Hasan himself is considered one of those inspired by Urdu’s traditionalist intellectuals, a school of thought whose origin is attributed to Askari. Dr Hasan has meticulously analysed these letters and drawn conclusions that seem to be substantiated by evidence, though at times he seems to be at a loss for proper explanation. He says, for instance, that Ahmed Nadeem Qasmi’s letter dated 1942 — when the good relations between the two writers had not changed into acrimony — shows “quite a marked thankfulness and humility” towards Askari. The contempt with which Qasmi referred to Askari in later years is puzzling for Dr Hasan and he opines that perhaps it was Askari’s sympathies for Manto, Pakistan, and his stance on Kashmir that had exasperated the Progressives and as a result they boycotted in 1949 all those who were “not Progressives or non-aligned” and were “government agents.” The Progressives later retracted the boycott and Qasmi, too, absolved himself, but Dr Hasan thinks it was not the short story writer Askari whom Qasmi despised, but the critic Askari. But then, Dr Hasan ends the argument with saying, “only God knows better,” as he feels Askari’s letters addressed to Qasmi might have clues to this puzzle, but Qasmi never published those letters.
Shamsur Rahman Faruqi wrote very long, thought-provoking letters. Though Faruqi had sort of joined hands with Askari against the Progressives, he does not fall in the category of traditionalists. In fact, Faruqi is a modernist, if anything. The five letters by Faruqi show that he was thoroughly impressed with Askari’s knowledge and command over literary and philosophical issues. Dr Hasan has referred to Askari’s letters addressed to Faruqi published elsewhere and they show that, as Dr Hasan puts it, while Askari appreciated the criticism written by Faruqi, he pointed out its limitations, too. One of Faruqi’s letters, Dr Hasan says, shows that Faruqi was reluctant to publish in his Shabkhoon, an Urdu literary magazine and a vehicle of modernist views, something written by Askari with a “pronounced religious tone,” despite Faruqi’s expressing his good intentions to read and “benefit” from the writings of Thanvi. Dr Hasan concludes that though he belongs to a religious family, to be a religious fellow was never Faruqi’s temperament. In the final analysis
Dr Hasan says that Faruqi may not be much influenced by Askari’s literary theories, but he has definitely benefitted from Askari’s advice.
In the book itself, the compilers could have done well by mentioning foreign names in Roman script too. Some footnotes are very useful and informative; others leave the reader wishing for more information about the scholars, especially the French.
Askari is not an enigma; he never was. It is the approach of those who tried to understand him — especially the Progressives — that makes him look like an enigma. Saleem Ahmed said, “A common misconception is that Askari rediscovered the East through the West and René Guénon. But some of his early writings show that what he rediscovered later was latent in his own self and only the ideas germinated in the latter era.”
The reviewer is a former chief editor of the Urdu Dictionary Board and now teaches Urdu at the University of Karachi
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, February 12th, 2017
An earlier version of this article misspelt the name of Muhammad Hasan Musanna as Muhammad Hasan Masni.