One of the distinctive features of Arabic and Persian literatures is the tradition of 'sharh' or writing of explanatory notes or commentaries on classical texts. Interpretation, explanation and annotation of classical texts do not only make them easier to understand — and more enjoyable to less learned readers (no offence intended, I am only referring to myself) — but they also preserve them, and in some cases, immortalise the masterpieces. They also help erudite readers to become acquainted with the finer points of the subject-matter and language.
Sometimes even a trained mind cannot decipher the hidden meanings of a text either due to the lack of ability to understand the idioms, metaphors, symbols, allusions, terminology and subtle nuances used in it or due to the unfamiliarity with the background against which a literary piece is conceived. A commentary surely increases a reader's level of understanding, with the result that his or her pleasure of reading is considerably heightened. Even a person like Altaf Hussain Haali, a poet, scholar and critic who knew several languages and was into their literatures, proudly acknowledged that he used to read the masterpieces of Arabic and Persian poetry with the help of their well-known commentaries. He was fortunate in the sense that a great many number of major works of these two languages had already been explained and appreciated through commentaries. On some Persian works, more than one commentary was written on the works of Saadi, Hafiz, Rumi and some other maestros the critics of different eras wrote their commentaries and we now have several volumes on each of them. And 'Gulshan-e-Raaz', Mahmood Shubstari's famous Persian masnavi, has the unique distinction of having been explained by more than 50 (yes, fifty!) commentators.
It is quite disheartening that as compared to Persian and Arabic, in Urdu the tradition of writing 'sharh' could not flourish as early as one would have wished. In Arabic and Persian, commentaries on prose and poetry were written as early as in the pre-Islamic era. Many scholars of the subcontinent wrote commentaries on some Persian works, too, although many of them still remain unpublished and their manuscripts are preserved in different libraries and museums. Though a number of commentaries do exist in Urdu today, it was not till the end of the nineteenth century that the first commentary on any of Urdu's poetical work was written. Ghalib was the first Urdu poet whose 'sharh' was written and that, too, in 1895.
The success of commentary on Ghalib's poetry resulted in a mushroom growth of such books and as many as 40 (yes, forty!) commentaries have so far been written on Ghalib's poetry. The other poet on whose works most commentaries, after Ghalib, have been written, is Iqbal.
Those who wrote explanatory notes and commentaries on Iqbal's Urdu and Persian works include Yousuf Saleem Chishtie, Ghulam Rasool Mehr, Nishter Jalandhari, Dr Arif Batalvi, Dr Muhammad Baqar and some other scholars. Of them all, Yousuf Saleem Chishtie was the most devoted and most prolific commentator and scholar. He was in fact the first to begin such a work. He was not only a devotee of Iqbal, but he also used to call himself Iqbal's advocate.What makes Yousuf Saleem Chishtie stand head and shoulder above the other commentators of Iqbal is the fact that he wrote commentaries on all of Iqbal's Urdu and Persian works, beginning in 1939 with the commentary on 'Asrar-e-Khudi'. Later, he wrote commentaries on Ghalib and Akber Allahabadi's works as well.
Born in Bareli, UP, on May 2, 1895, Yousuf Saleem Chishtie's real name was Muhammad Yousuf Khan. After obtaining an Honours' degree in philosophy from Allahabad University in 1918, Chishtie Sahib had to seek a job and found one at Bareli's Mission High School as assistant head-master. Soon he found another one in the postal department but quit it to become a lecturer at Kanpur's Haleem Muslim College. He had an insatiable thirst for knowledge and kept acquiring it till quite late in life. After doing a master's in Indian philosophy from Ahmedabad's National University in 1922, he did another MA in Hindu philosophy and later got a certificate in theology from a seminary in Kanpur.
He was promoted to professor but soon joined Lahore's Mission College and met Allama Iqbal in Lahore. Thoroughly impressed by Iqbal's personality and poetry, he became his life-long devotee, writing commentaries on his books and philosophy. Chishtie Sahib wrote some 17 books and scores of articles on Iqbal and his poetry alone, in addition to other books and articles. Before that he had met Akber Allahabadi in Allahabad and had been inspired by his poetry. Later, he wrote a book on Akber's poetry and his allusions.
During his stay in Lahore, he met Lala Lajpat Roy Lahori and on his advice studied Vedas and Shastras from a Hindu pundit. Later, Swami Prakash Anand taught him Upanishads, Gita and Hindu philosophy of mysticism. Yousuf Saleem Chishtie was a restless soul and wandered from one place to another. He taught at many institutions and lived in many towns from time to time in connection with his academic engagements, including Delhi, Sialkot, Mangrol, Karachi, Bahawalpur, Bijnour and Bhopal. After independence, he came to Karachi and studied the Quran and Hadith. In 1949, he obtained oriental degrees of Moulvi Alim and Moulvi Fazil in theology from Lahore's Oriental college. Apart from this formal education, in Lahore he benefited from many religious scholars learning from them Persian poetry, logic and the Quran.
From 1951 to 1955, Chishtie Sahib stayed in Karachi and worked for 'Dar-ut-tasneef', an academic and religious institution to which he loaned about 5,000 of his books. According to some of his disciples, his personal collection boasted 50,000 books most of which bore his comments and notes in the margin.
A Sufi and philosopher by disposition, Yousuf Saleem Chishtie had made a through study of the mysticism of different religions. Philosophy and comparative study of religions was something he really excelled at. He used to call his book 'Tareekh-e-tasawwuf' the gist of his life-long study of philosophy and Sufism but it raised many hackles. Prior to the publication of the book, one of its chapters titled 'Islami tasawwuf mein ghair Islami nazriyaat ki amezish' was published in 'Misaaq', a magazine published from Lahore, and caused considerable controversy.
Objections were raised by some quarters and, as a result, when the book was published in 1976, the chapter was excluded. Though it was later published separately and has since become quite popular and run into many editions, it shows how our society abhors the critical analysis of anything that has been stamped by traditionalism. Tareekh-e-tasawwuf's second edition was published a few years ago, without the controversial chapter (I have written about both the books in my article in Dawn, July 15, 2008).
Yousuf Saleem Chishtie died on 11 February, 1984 in Lahore. Hundreds of his articles on an array of topics are scattered and buried in magazines and need to be edited and published like his books — about 25 — that have been out of print for a long time.