Published May 16, 2021
Professor Mohammad Shamim Hanafi speaking at the 12th International Urdu Conference at the Arts Council in Karachi in December 2019 | Fahim Siddiqi/White Star
Professor Mohammad Shamim Hanafi speaking at the 12th International Urdu Conference at the Arts Council in Karachi in December 2019 | Fahim Siddiqi/White Star

When it comes to Professor Mohammad Shamim Hanafi, a brief obituary is insufficient. But if this renowned teacher, critic, literary journalist, novelist, poet, playwright, translator and observer of the Urdu language were to be introduced in one line, it would be that Hanafi was a bright reference in the pedagogic, scholarly and cultural history of our time.

Hanafi was born in Sultanpur, Uttar Pradesh — also the birthplace of the great Progressive poet Majrooh Sultanpuri — on May 17, 1939. His father, Mohammad Yaseen, was a law graduate and deeply interested in learning and literature. With his father having friends such as Professor Aal-i-Ahmad Suroor, Khawaja Ahmad Abbas and Congress leader Sadiq Ali, and his mother, Zebunnissa Begum, also having a taste for reading and writing, Hanafi came of age in a scholarly and literary milieu.

After initial education in Sultanpur, Hanafi was sent to the University of Allahabad from where he earned his bachelors, masters (in Urdu literature and history) and PhD degrees under the tutelage of eminent writers and critics, including Ehtisham Hussain, Firaq Gorakhpuri, Dr Ejaz Hussain and the renowned intellectual of English literature, S.C. Dev.

In Allahabad — a great centre of language and literature — Hanafi mingled with Hindi writers and poets. This strengthened his grip on the Hindi language and the linguistic and cultural harmony granted breadth of vision to his mind. He believed in respect for all religions and social tolerance, and did not brook discrimination among Hindus and Muslims, Shias and Sunnis, Wahhabis and Barelvis. Positive human values were his creed.

After completing his PhD from Allahabad, Hanafi was appointed lecturer of Urdu at Indore University in 1965 and soon became head of department for Urdu, Farsi and Arabic. In 1969, he was appointed lecturer at Aligarh Muslim University. The learned air of Aligarh gave him new powers to fly; here, in 1976, he obtained the prestigious qualification of D. Litt with a double distinction, under the supervision of Professor Aal-i-Ahmad Suroor.

Professor Shamim Hanafi, who passed away in Delhi on May 6 from Covid-19, conquered the heights of fame and popularity with his scholarly, artistic and intellectual labours

In the same year, he was appointed lecturer at the Jamia Millia Islamia. In 1984, he acquired a professorship. After holding several illustrious positions at the university, including dean, director and acting vice chancellor, he retired in 2008. However, for the Jamia to not be deprived of his services, he was made professor emeritus.

Hanafi rendered his services to Urdu literature alongside his educational and teaching activities. In research and criticism, his books — Jadeediat Ki Falsafiana Asaas [The Philosophical Foundation of Modernism], Nayee Sheri Rivayat [New Poetic Tradition], Ghazal Ka Naya Manzarnama [New Landscapes of the Ghazal], Tareekh-i-Tehzeeb Aur Takhleeqi Tajruba [The History of Culture and Creative Experience], Iqbal Ka Harf-i-Tamanna (Iqbal’s Word of Desire), Firaq: Dayaar-i-Shab Ka Musafir (Firaq: The Traveler of the Country of Night), Ghalib Ki Takleeqi Hisiyat [The Creative Sensibility of Ghalib], Infiraadi Shaoor Aur Ijtimaaee Zindagi [Individual Consciousness and Collective Life] and Qaari Se Mukaalma [Dialogue with the Reader] — marked him as an insightful critic and observer of his age.

Hanafi also possessed a creative mind. A collection of his best plays, Mitti Ka Bulava [Summons of the Earth], is part of the literary curriculum of various universities, as are many of his other books.

He was influential in Urdu literary journalism and the issues of Jamia — Jamia Millia’s quarterly journal — published under his editorship were a mirror of his journalistic competence. He wrote on civilisation, culture, current affairs, literature and society; penned biographies of Mirza Asadullah Khan Ghalib, Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi; spun children’s stories and translated important works from English, Hindi and Bengali into Urdu. He compiled biographical memoirs of poets and wrote essays on contemporary writers and poets. He also wrote ghazals and nazms of his own, but did not want to publish them.

Generally, advancing age slows down the power to act. But even after passing his eighth decade, Hanafi’s energy often surpassed that of those much younger. He remained active after retirement, writing, travelling, attending seminars and conferences and consulting for India’s National Council of Educational Research and Training.

Prevalent standards and measures of Urdu criticism are associated with foreign literature and trends. Hanafi, too, practised this very manner to a certain extent. He had a deep view of English, Farsi and the literature of other languages as well, but his critical mode did not adhere to any ‘ism’ or ideology. He imagined constructive criticism very much to be in evaluating the masterpieces and artists within the creative, social, cultural, psychological and aesthetic background of India.

He liked the critical manner of Hasan Askari, who stressed the importance of evaluating literary works based on one’s own indigenous sensibilities, aesthetics and creative perspective, rather than imported Western contructs, and his own critical language was extremely sophisticated and dignified.

Aside from within India, Hanafi’s scholarly and literary works were extremely popular abroad. He presented a valuable essay on Iqbaliyat at the international Iqbal seminar in Heidelberg, Germany. Before this, he had read an article at Iqbal’s alma mater, Government College University, Lahore, which was acknowledged as a healthy addition to the understanding of facets of Iqbal’s thought. He presented thoughtful research addresses also on Maulana Jalaluddin Rumi and Ghalib at Pakistan’s University of Sargodha and University of Faisalabad respectively.

Hanafi was generally a serious and cautious man who bore decorum in mind. Outwardly strict and irritable, below the surface he was soft, humble and polite, respectful of elders, affectionate towards the young and loving with friends. When he chose to be silent, he became cold and hard, but when he opened up, conversation bloomed.

He was not a worldly man and his domestic life showed not the slightest trace of artificiality. His wife was highly educated and retired from Jamia Millia after a long association with teaching and learning. Both his daughters are also teachers. Simplicity and good disposition were the beauty of his home. He enjoyed sleeping under the open sky and walking on foot, but vehicles are a compulsion of this era.

With the passing away of Professor Shamim Hanafi, a tall tower of Urdu literature has fallen. In the words of Jamia Millia’s Professor Wajeehuddin Shehper Rasul:

Chiragh-i-lafz hi chup ho gaya hai
Andhera kis qadar ghup ho gaya hai

[The lamp of words has very much gone to sleep
The darkness has become so very deep]g

The writer is a Lahore-based social scientist, translator, dramatic reader and president of the Progressive Writers Association. He is currently working on a book, Sahir Ludhianvi’s Lahore, Lahore’s Sahir Ludhianvi. He can be reached at

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, May 16th, 2021


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