‘Polymath’ is a word derived from Greek roots and it means, literally, ‘having learned much’, says Concise Oxford English Dictionary.

A polymath is a person who has studied a wide range of subjects and has substantial knowledge of each of them. This exposure enables polymaths to handle issues requiring multi-disciplinary expertise and it comes in handy when a new approach is required to bridging the gap between different fields. Sadly, it is becoming increasingly difficult these days to find someone in our society who is equally at home in different disciplines at the same time.

Polymath is a word that can be applied to Jabir Ali Syed. He was a critic, linguist, prosodist, research scholar, translator, poet, prose writer and an expert in Iqbal Studies. He knew many languages and had devoured major classical works in different languages at an early age.

A just-published book on Jabir Ali Syed has covered his life and works in details. Despite its old-fashioned title — Jabir Ali Syed: Hayat Aur Adabi Khidmaat — the doctoral dissertation penned by Aneela Saleem and published by Lahore’s Dastavez Matboo’aat’ thoroughly examines Jabir Ali Syed’s literary works. Its different chapters evaluate Jabir Sahib’s literary standing as critic, linguist, lexicologist, prosodist, poet and an expert in Iqbal Studies.

But Urdu’s modern-day doctoral theses are not limited to such monographic studies nor do such titles are favoured anymore. It would have been much better had the title and the thesis been a bit wider, to include some other aspects of the subject, such as social, linguistic, theoretical and/or ideological significance of Jabir Sahib’s works. The book is well-written and well-produced, but had the typos been taken care of, it would have been more useful.

Jabir Sahib’s autobiography Aik Adabi Khud Navisht, published in Funoon — an Urdu literary magazine edited by Ahmed Nadeem Qasmi and published from Lahore — has important clues to Jabir Ali Syed’s life, works, literary ideas and views.

Aneela Saleem, the author, says Jabir Ali Syed was born in Sialkot on July 27, 1923. He got degrees in Urdu and Persian and began his career as an OTS instructor at Belgaum, Maharashtra, where he was hired to teach Urdu to the British officers. Jabir Ali Syed drowned himself in study of Western and Eastern literature during his stay at Belgaum. In his later life, too, Jabir Ali Syed remained a voracious reader.

He had began writing quite early and while in Belgaum he started contributing to prestigious literary magazines, such as, Adabi Dunya, Naya Daur, Asia, Saqi, Adab-e-Lateef and Humayun. It was early 1940s.

In the late 1940s, Jabir Sahib decided to forsake his job and do Masters in Persian at Lahore. Living in Lahore for his MA at Punjab University Oriental College was as thrilling as fructuous. Here he met many bigwigs of Urdu’s literary world and began attending literary sessions at Halqa-e-Arbaab-e-Zauq, a literary circle that has left its indelible marks on Urdu’s literary world.

Having secured first position in MA Persian, Jabir Ali Syed was offered scholarship for research on Persian novel. But he left it unfinished and joined education department as lecturer. He served at different educational institutes in Punjab and was finally posted at Multan, from where he was prematurely retired by force, though at that time his actual retirement date was about a year ahead, writes the author.

Though considered a critic with stress on formalist and aesthetic theories as well as a considerable expert on Allama Iqbal’s works, Jabir Ali Syed is more known for his works on prosody, lexicography and linguistics. His book Kutub-e-Lughat Ka Tehqeeqi-o-Lisani Jaiza, published by National Language Authority (NLA) in 1984, critically evaluates two very important dictionaries of Urdu: Dictionary of Classical Hindi, Urdu and English by John T. Platts and Farhang-e-Asifiya by Syed Ahmed Dehlvi. Jabir Sahib meticulously examined both the dictionaries and eruditely highlighted the weaknesses and strengths of these all-important works. He also analysed Farhang-e-Asifiya’s long foreword and criticised its certain aspects, especially the ones concerning Urdu’s genesis.

His book Lisani-o-Aroozi Maqalat was published by NLA in 1989. It discusses the origin of words and some issues relating to Urdu prosody. Here too he proved his mettle, pointing out glaring errors in some of the well-known works on prosody.

Jabir Ali Syed’s other books are: Iqbal Ka Fanni Irtiqa (1978), Tanqeed Aur Liberalism (1982), Iqbl: Aik Mutal’a (1985), Tanqeed-o-Tehqeeq (1987), Isti’aare Ke Chaar Shehr (1994), Mauj-e-Aahang (1998) and Usool-e-Intiqad-e-Adabiyat: Aik Tanqeedi Mutal’a (2012).

Jabir Ali Syed died in Multan on January 3, 1985.


Published in Dawn, January 10th, 2022



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