SOMETIMES literary success in a realm becomes an impediment in the sense that it eclipses brilliance of an author in other literary domains.

The smashing success of Altaf Hussain Hali’s Muqaddama-i-Shaer-o-Shaeri (1893), a treatise on critical theory, is a good case in point. It established Hali as a pioneering literary critic and critical theorist since his Muaqaddama was the maiden endeavour on critical theory in Urdu. Before Hali, Urdu criticism was limited to either ‘tazkiras’ — adulatory introduction to poets with sample verses — or mushaeras that also served as opportunity to critically review the poetry of contemporary poets, albeit informally.

The tradition of ‘islaah’, or correction, literally, wherein a junior poet asked a senior one for critical review and suggestions, was another way of getting one’s work critically analysed. Aside from these informal and irregular forums of applied criticism, there was little, if at all, written on critical theory in Urdu. Hali formally founded literary criticism in Urdu and that is why he is often dubbed as Urdu’s first literary critic.

But Hali’s stature as a critic overshadowed his other contributions that were equally important and remarkable: Hali as a poet and a biographer. A new book, an anthology of articles written on all three dimensions of Hali’s literary works, has been published and it is packed with important information as well as invaluable critical opinions on Hali’s diverse literary acumen. These articles were written from time to time by some of our towering literary figures and have now been selected and compiled by Ishtiaq Ahmed in this book titled Hali: Naqqaad, Shaer, Savaneh Nigar. Ishtiaq Ahmed teaches Urdu at Government Islamia College, Kasur, and has compiled several anthologies on literary issues before the present one.

In his foreword, Ishtiaq Ahmed says that despite some lacunas in Hali’s critical writings, the significance of his thought and work cannot be underestimated. In his foreword, Ishtiaq Ahmed has also pointed a finger towards some critics, especially Syed Muhammad Aqeel and Abul Kalam Qasmi, who “try to prove that Hali and his contemporaries, such as Muhammad Hussain Azad and Moulvi Nazeer Ahmed Dehlvi, had been active in supporting the expansionist policies of the British colonialists” or were, at least, “under some colonial pressures”. He then suggests that “the critics supporting purely western critical notions such as structuralism, post-structuralism, deconstructionism, feminist critical theories, post-modernism and globalisation should also be held accountable”. He further says that “it should be investigated that what motives are behind the promotion of these critical theories though these theories have failed to become popular despite all efforts”.

One knows that Ishtiaq Ahmed is a supporter of traditionalist school of literary criticism and hence holds Hasan Askari and his theories very dear, but it does not mean that the originality and integrity of all other literary schools of thought can be labelled as doubtful or without sincerity and “should be investigated” from a conspiracy theory point of view. Everyone has a right to have his own opinion and not everything new is a part of some western conspiracy against eastern value system. Also, new ideas should be welcomed and evaluated objectively. Surprisingly, in the very next paragraph, Ishtiaq Ahmed quotes from a piece of Hali’s writing that says: “we should benefit in every possible way from the ideas and thoughts no matter from which nation they reach us and should not be content with the decayed and outmoded notions that have been in place for centuries”. That is in contrast to what Ishtiaq Ahmed has said in his foreword.

He then goes on to say that Hali was a great supporter of “following the west”, but stresses that “Hali was in favour of a balance between the old and the new”. One has to agree with him when he says that Hali’s contributions to every genre were invaluable as they brought something new to our literature. Hali and his views are important against the backdrop of past, present and future, he adds.

Published by Lahore’s Al-Qamar Enterprises, the book has three sections, each discussing a different dimension, namely criticism, poetry and biographies penned by Hali. Among the scholars whose critical writings have made it to the anthology are some real big names, such as, Moulvi Abdul Haq, Hasan Askari, Waheed Qureshi, Mumtaz Hussain, Kaleemuddin Ahmed, Syed Abdullah, Waris Alvi, Vazeer Agha, Jameel Jalibi, Shameem Hanafi, Aal-i-Ahmed Suroor, Abul Kalam Qasmi, Shamsur Rahman Farooqi, Gopi Chand Narang, Firaq Gorakhpuri and many others.

It must be appreciated that the compiler has included the pieces by even those he does not agree with. Ishtiaq Ahmed’s deep and wide study has enabled him to gather all the important and worthwhile articles on Hali’s literary works from different sources, including books and periodicals, and this volume comes in handy for anyone interested in knowing discerning views on Hali’s different dimensions. It is a must-read for the students of Urdu literature.

Wikipedia thinks Hali died on Sept 30, 1914, but it is incorrect. As mentioned by Dr Jameel Jalibi, Hali died on Dec 31, 1914.

Published in Dawn, December 30th, 2019