The grand old man of historiography

January 20, 2009


'It is not the neutrals or the lukewarm who make history,' said Adolf Hitler. Well, maybe, and Hitler's own career is a case in point. But making history may not result in so much bloodshed either some 'more' benign souls, too, can make history. Writing history is no less daunting. It takes a lot of courage, too. And, what to say of a person who makes history while he writes it?

Prof Dr Ishtiaq Hussain Qureshi was one such fellow. He is one of the big names in historiography and he made history, too. His biographical sketch reads like a plot straight out of a traditional story-book where a boy from a small town who once could not afford a decent education later travels the world and becomes a minister and a famous man. Dr Qureshi wrote history, made history and lived history.

Ishtiaq Hussain Qureshi was born on November 20, 1903, in Patyali, a small town near Allahabad, UP. Having passed his matric exams, he wanted to join Aligarh's Mohammadan Anglo-Oriental College but it was simply beyond his means. The only way he could carry on his education was by joining a government-approved school as a teacher and pursuing his studies as an external candidate. He did just that. However, political turmoil took the country by storm in 1920 when he had passed his intermediate exams and was preparing to earn a BA.

Dr Sahib's family had suffered much at the hands of the British. His grandfather's brother was hanged for taking part in the 1857's war of independence and his grandfather was grilled about his suspected cooperation with his brother. Dr Sahib abhorred the colonialists and, therefore, joined the Non Co-operation Movement and the Khilafat Movement as soon as they were launched. During the movement he helped establish Khilafat committees in the rural areas and gained invaluable experience that shaped his personality and shattered his belief in the notion of Hindu-Muslim unity.

After the movement subsided, he joinied 'Al-amaan', a newspaper published from Delhi, and resumed his studies at Delhi's St Stephen's College, obtaining a BA and two MA's --- in history and Persian. Soon he joined his alma mater as a lecturer in history, and a little later proceeded to Cambridge to get a PhD in history. At Cambridge, Prof Dr Whitehead, the renowned scholar known for his strictness, was made Qureshi Sahib's research supervisor. Qureshi Sahib presented his doctoral dissertation on 'The administration of the sultanate of Delhi' and came out with flying colours. On his return to the country, Dr Qureshi was made reader at Delhi University in 1940 and later on was promoted to the posts of professor and dean. During his stay at Cambridge, he had struck an acquaintance with a group of students who earnestly supported Choudhry Rahmat Ali's idea of Pakistan that he had launched with the publication of his pamphlet 'Now or Never' in 1933, thereby coining the word Pakistan, an acronym made up with the initials of different provinces. When a delegation of Cambridge old boys along with Dr Qureshi met the Quaid-i-Azam to discuss political issues, they fully supported the idea of Pakistan. Later, the Muslim League got Dr Qureshi elected a member of the legislative assembly from Bengal.

Dr Sahib's colleagues and students had a high regard for him but after the creation of Pakistan extremist Hindus laid siege to his residence in Delhi and he could barely move from there and had to take refuge in the Pakistani embassy, leaving his invaluable collection of books behind which was ransacked by the mob. In Pakistan, he first served at the legislative assembly and also worked on the Objectives Resolution Committee; he then joined Punjab University as Professor. In 1948, all of a sudden he was made deputy minister and later minister of state in the Centre and for about five years supervised different ministries including that of education. As minister of education, he was instrumental in the establishment of Liaqat Memorial Library that today houses about 100,000 volumes.

The notable aspect of his personality is that during his entire political career he never quit his scholarly pursuits and kept on researching and writing. Joining Columbia University as a visiting professor in 1955 provided him an opportunity to remain engaged in an array of intellectual and scholarly activities. Here he stayed till 1960 and authored his signature work 'The Muslim community of the indo-Pakistan sub-continent', a milestone in the historiography of the sub-continent. In 1960, he was invited to head the then newly-established 'Central institute of Islamic research'.

He accepted the offer but in 1961 was made Karachi University's Vice Chancellor. It was a challenge as the nascent varsity was grappling with a whole lot of problems. Dr Sahib's vision, experience and relentless work transformed it into one of the country's best universities. He got new blocks of buildings constructed, new departments and a new faculty opened and sent many university teachers abroad for further research and training. He got the varsity's central library constructed that today houses over 200,000 volumes.

During his tenure as VC, he penned two very important books, 'The struggle for Pakistan' and 'The administration of Mughal empire'. After his retirement as VC in 1971, Dr Sahib wrote three valuable books, namely 'Education in Pakistan', 'Akber the founder of Mughal empire' and 'Ulema in politics'.

Dr Sahib held many other posts too, such as president, Pakistan Historical Society, and Member, National Commission for Archives and Historical Records. He attended and addressed a large number of national and international seminars. His countless papers on Pakistan's history and its culture serve as reference for scholars. He did still some more scholarly work during the last phase of his life when in 1979 he was asked to head the then newly-established 'Muqtadira Qaumi Zaban', or the National Language Authority'. Here he planned and took the first steps towards making Urdu a language that could replace English as a medium of instruction and as official language of the country, a cause for which he had been fighting throughout his life. Though Urdu has been prepared to assume the mantle of the country's official language, through the efforts of Muqtadira and other similar institutions of the country, a lack political will by successive governments has been hindering its progress.

Dr Qureshi died on January 22, 1981, in Islamabad and was buried in Karachi's Gulshan-i-Iqbal graveyard.

Though he himself has now become history, Dr Ishtiaq Hussain Qureshi will live on as a historian and a research scholar.