PROF Hafiz Mahmood Sherani (1880-1946) was a literary colossus. Though more famous for his theory of Urdu’s origin that says that Urdu was born in Punjab and was derived from the Punjabi language, Sherani was a scholar whose real domain was research on Persian and Urdu literatures. In fact, he was the pioneer of modern research in Urdu.

Sherani was endowed with an amazingly irrefragable insight. Equipped with his hugely vast and deep knowledge, he could tear the arguments of any scholar to tatters with rare evidences, and that too in quite a sarcastic style. As if Sherani’s pinpointing the inaccuracies that have crept into Muhammad Hussain Azad’s legendary work Aab-i-Hayat was not enough, he decided to critically analyse Shibli No’mani’s Shear-ul-Ajam, a task that even a great scholar would have not dared touch. Dispelling the centuries-old notion that Khaliq Bari was Ameer Khusrau’s work was another milestone in Urdu research that Sherani achieved, though most of the scholars including Jameel Jalibi, Afsar Amrohvi and Gian Chand Jain have so far disagreed, Sherani’s arguments on the issue cannot be dismissed easily. Removing misconceptions was Sherani’s forte, as is evident from his assertion that Chahar Dervish, later on translated into Urdu as Bagh-o-Bahar, is not Ameer Khusrau’s work either. An interesting scholarly debate ensued when Sulaiman Nadvi disagreed with Sherani on the issue of ‘chaar baiti’ and ‘ruba’i’.

His lifelong passion for collecting manuscripts and rare coins had made Sherani such a connoisseur of rare documents and antiques that he could sometimes tell just by looking at the paper and ink the era in which a manuscript could have been handwritten. Sometimes he was able to correctly judge even the name of the ‘kaatib’, or calligrapher, just by looking at the style of calligraphy. It was Sherani’s this acumen that made him become a rare contributor from the subcontinent to Encyclopaedia Britannica in those days.

Aside from collections of Sherani’s research articles, ably compiled and annotated by his grandson Dr Mazhar Mahmood Sherani in 10 volumes under the title Maqalaat-i-Hafiz Mahmood Sherani, Hafiz Mahmood Sherani’s other works offer a whole new world to those who have a zest for classical Persian and Urdu literatures. But Sherani’s letters, too, are full of rare information on oriental languages and literatures.

Sherani’s letters were collected by Dr Mazhar Mahmood Sherani and published by Lahore’s Majlis-i-Taraqqi-i-Adab in 1981, titled Makateeb-i-Hafiz Mahmood Sherani. Now Majlis has published its second edition. Written between 1904 and 1945 and addressed to his father, his brothers and some well-known scholars of the subcontinent, these letters also offer some glimpses of Sherani’s personal life. Especially his letters written from London and addressed to his father and brothers shed light on his life as a student there. The second edition has 11 additional letters that Mazhar Sherani was able to trace after the publication of the first edition.

But what would interest the student of Urdu and Persian more is the invaluable information the letters to some scholars contain. For instance, in a very long letter addressed to Moulvi Abdul Haq, Sherani has critically analysed an early edited version of Firdousi’s Shahnama. It was edited in India in 1829 by Turner Macan and was based on 19 manuscripts. But Sherani has wonderfully pointed out the glaring shortcomings.

In one of his letters to Dr Abdus Sattar Siddiqi, one of the most erudite scholars of his time, Sherani has mentioned some rare facts about Ustad Ibrahim Zauq and Muhammad Hussain Azad. With reference to some manuscripts he has concluded that many of the verses included in Zauq’s divan were in fact composed by Azad and added to Zauq’s divan to ‘enrich’ his mentor’s poetry. In the same letter, Sherani says that Muhammad Hussain Azad’s father Moulvi Muhammad Baqar was a very unprejudiced and fair-minded person and did not discriminate on the basis of faith. This had earned him the wrath of his fellow beings and Moulvi Baqar was excommunicated, but Azad on the contrary, says Sherani on the basis of some evidences was quite biased and has discriminated on the basis of faith in Aab-i-Hayat. In another letter to Dr Siddiqi, Sherani has dealt with prosody and has suggested some variations in a metre.

Qazi Abdul Wadood was a researcher feared by many for his straightforward scholarly musings. In a letter to him Sherani informs him about some manuscripts, some Persian dictionaries, and criticises Ghalib for his inaccurate evaluation of Burhan-i-Qaate. In some other letters Sherani provides some scholars, such as Syed Abdullah, who must have been pretty young at that time, with some information on different literary issues. Apparently such letters were written as reply to queries put forward by these scholars in their letters.

Annotations by Prof Mazhar Sherani and an index at the back of the book have increased the understanding and value of these letters.

Published in Dawn, April 7th, 2020