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Updated October 15, 2017


What do I say? And what do I write?

My eyes have lost their vision, and my heart its joy. Hands tremble, 

And my ears are bereft of hearing …

A friend like Maulana Fazl-i-Haqq dies — that creative genius, that 

Pride of ingenuities, leaving behind this half-dead, half-living Ghalib —

So here we are, dying for the visitation of death …

Yes, death is upon us — and yet death does not visit us.

In the days bygone we laughed at our heart’s plight

And now — nothing makes us laugh!

So writes Mirza Asadullah Khan Ghalib to Shaikh Abdul Latif Bilgrami in a letter mourning the death of a companion, a dear friend, a guide and the empowered editor of the standard Divan-i-Ghalib. And what a painful death it was; away from friends and family, separated from fellow human beings, exiled by the British Raj officials to Kala Pani [Black Waters], to that dreaded Cellular Jail in the Andaman Islands in a remote, deserted archipelago. 

Let’s recall that the vicious architecture of this jail was a paradigm of a cruel, isolationist infrastructure. It was based on the Panopticon model of the founder of utilitarianism, the Englishman Jeremy Bentham, whereby all prisoners could be watched at once without their knowing that they were being watched. With practically no possibility of their communicating with one another, these prisoners were to languish in utter solitary isolation till their bodies could no longer sustain life. They died themselves in dozens upon dozens daily; but then, in dozens upon dozens they were also hanged daily. This is the treacherous theatre where on Aug 20, 1861, the physical elements of Fazl-i-Haqq’s existence too succumbed to death’s visitation.

So who is this Fazl-i-Haqq? Here we have a monumental figure, this Allama/Maulana Fazl-i-Haqq Khairabadi, who ought to be carved in the world’s historical consciousness on at least three counts. First, on the intellectual count, for he embodied a formidable rational philosopher and logician, and this in the strict and formal sense of the two disciplines as we know them from Aristotle onwards. Second, he was entrusted by Ghalib to take charge as his poetic consultant and editor authorised with executive prerogatives. This recognition of Maulana’s stature by someone as proud, as fastidious, and as self-assured as the poetic colossus Ghalib is in itself a glowing fact of literary history and a resounding tribute. But more, he did indeed edit Ghalib’s verses, as we have noted, carrying this out rigorously and critically, yielding what became the mutadavil [standardised] Divan. So on the literary and textual count too, this Cellular prisoner marks a massive watershed in the story of Urdu poetry.

It is this very fatwa that condemned him to the Cellular Jail with all his property confiscated. The tale of India’s freedom from colonial rule cannot be told without these beginnings...

But we have yet another count on which Maulana Fazl-i-Haqq Khairabadi deserves to be inscribed in the annals of our collective memories. He is one of the pioneering personages of India’s freedom movement; by extension, then, he effectively looms large in the history of the creation of Pakistan. Maulana’s historic fatwa daringly issued right in the middle of the 1857 ghadr [rebellion] had made a fateful declaration: that an armed struggle against the British now constituted a religious duty of all Muslims — and this became the first rung in the chain of events that ended intricately in the ouster of the British and the end of the Raj. Indeed, it is this very fatwa — which its author, opting to be his own counsel, owned up to before a magistrate — that condemned him to the Cellular Jail with all his property confiscated. The tale of India’s freedom from colonial rule cannot be told without these beginnings, but for this one needs to be in touch with indigenous Indian legacy and with documents other than those in English or reported by the English.

Sir Syed Ahmad Khan, whose bicentenary is just two days away, happened to stand a world apart from Fazl-i-Haqq in terms of his religious views and political ideas and ideals, but see what he has to say: “In all intellectual disciplines and arts [Maulana Fazl-i-Haqq] is just unparalleled. And as for the disciplines of logic and philosophy specifically, he has virtually laid their very foundation. It is often observed that those who considered themselves outstanding experts felt humbled before him when they heard a single word from him, giving up their boasting claims and taking pride in becoming his pupils ... Envy of lustrous pearls are his unblemished utterances; his colourful meanings make the pure ruby lapse into jealousy; his multicoloured expressions put the rose to shame ...” This panegyric, this accolade, this devotional eulogy of Sir Syed becomes louder and louder. We have similar testimonies from Maulana Muhammad Hussain Azad and Maulana Altaf Husain Hali, two redoubtable literary figures of the 19th century.

In recent years the epithet ‘Maulana’ [Our Master] has received bad press; much worse is the case with the title ‘Maulavi’ [The Learned], the title of Rumi, which has become practically a term of disparagement and even of abuse. But we must fight the disease of projecting the present onto the past, the disease of what is called anachronism. How ironic it is that hardly any work is being done in South Asia on, for example, the Khairabadi school of logic, a major development in the world of intellectual history since Aristotle and Avicenna. And yet, we see some rigorous research on this school being done at Berkeley and Cambridge, practically without any awareness of this scholarly activity in the geographical and cultural region to which Fazl-i-Haqq belonged.

*All translations are by Syed Nomanul Haq

The columnist is a professor and advisor of the social sciences and liberal arts programme at the IBA, Karachi, and visiting faculty at the University of Pennsylvania

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, October 15th, 2017