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Muhammad Hasan Askari has always intrigued me as a formidable scholar, writer and critic. But his conceptualisation and promotion of ‘Pakistani Adab’ [Pakistani literature based on a Muslim cultural nationalism] clashes with the civilisational or multi-civilisational level to which art and literature rise. Creative writing may well be rooted in the history of a people and their experiences, or draw its strength from a particular linguistic and literary tradition but, somehow, the most significant part of art and literature transcends apparent religious faith and the dominant political ideology.

After the creation of Pakistan, Askari deviated from the course of his earlier writing and began to envision an Islamic cultural renaissance in Pakistan through Urdu literature. Some of the academic criticism of the Progressive Writers’ Movement he offered can be taken seriously and debated on purely literary grounds. But how could the revival of a faith-based culture be brought about through a language that embraced readers and writers belonging to different faiths and geographical regions over centuries? Urdu being used as an identity marker of South Asian Muslims was an idea to a certain end which was equally encouraged by chauvinist Hindu politicians and ideologues.

Besides, the consequence of seeing Urdu literature as the binding force for a certain cultural revival in Pakistan amounted to relegating other literary traditions in a multi-lingual state. Lest we forget, Bangla was one of our national languages at the time Askari was articulating his views, with a literary corpus comparable to any major language in the world. Also, the Holy Quran was translated into Sindhi before Urdu. Likewise, the purely mystic poetry anchored in a Muslim milieu was distinctly different in both Sindhi and Punjabi from Urdu. Pashto poetry represented another unique experience.

Many of our writers were multi-lingual in their expression and represented a composite culture, but were grounded in their native linguistic tradition. The poetry of Muslim saints is included in the Guru Granth Sahib — the holy book considered the living Guru of Sikhism — which includes Persian, Khari Boli and Braj Bhasha (two earlier dialects of Urdu, in some sense), Sanskrit and Sindhi, besides the main Punjabi verse.

The composite cultural strands were dominant in Urdu poetry all along. Maulana Hasrat Mohani, a major ghazal poet in the early and mid-20th century, was not only a firebrand freedom fighter against the Raj, but a deeply religious man. He performed Haj several times, but found no contradiction in being a Krishna Bhagat [disciple of Lord Krishna], attended Janmashtami [celebrations of Krishna’s birth] in Haridwar by the Ganges and paid the deity rich tributes in chaste Urdu verse. Nazeer Akbarabadi, one of the earliest ‘people’s poets’ in Urdu, composed as many poems about Hindu festivals such as Holi and Diwali as he composed about Eid and Shab-i-Baraat or the common seasonal festivals of Baisakhi and Basant. Sitting in the city of Agra during the 18th century, Akbarabadi not only wrote eulogies for Hazrat Saleem Chishti, but also for Baba Guru Nanak. This was more than a hundred years before Allama Muhammad Iqbal wrote in praise of Nanak.

In his metaphors, similes, associations and descriptions, Mir Taqi Mir’s eternal verse — unparalleled in the Urdu language — draws upon the rich imagery offered to him by the lifestyles, behaviours, rituals and norms of people around him who practiced varied faiths and came from different classes. Mirza Asadullah Khan Ghalib’s poetic expression is more Persianised than most, but he has risen above any distinctions between human beings. It does not mean at all that what their community went through did not bother them. But these poets saw it more as a human tragedy than a communal experience. Later, our leading Urdu short story writers such as Saadat Hasan Manto, Rajinder Singh Bedi, Krishan Chander, Ismat Chughtai and Ghulam Abbas shared the same world view.

Today, Pakistani literature shall be defined as literature written in Pakistan or by Pakistanis irrespective of their themes and concerns and in any language of their choice. If we speak of the Urdu, Punjabi or Pashto literary scene, it will include readers and writers from any country or place where these languages are spoken.

The writer is a poet and essayist based in Islamabad

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, October 21st, 2018