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Books and Documents ( 29 Jul 2014, NewAgeIslam.Com)

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South Asia’s Apostle of Secular Humanism – Josh Malihabadi (Part 1)


By Pervez Hoodbhoy

 Shabbir Hasan Khan (December 5, 1898 - February 22, 1982) of Malihabadi, known by his nom de plume as Josh Malihabadi, was not a particularly popular poet in his native land, India. For reasons that are not entirely clear, a decade after Partition – against the advice of his friend Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru – he chose to migrate to Pakistan. But Pakistan, where he lived his final years, turned out to be even less enamoured with him than India. The man on the street today, assuming he has heard of Josh, would probably associate the name with the lyrics of certain popular film songs, or perhaps with his somewhat raunchy autobiography Yaadon Ki Baraat. Apart from this, looking around in bookstores in Islamabad, one finds that other his works are unavailable. 

Those steeped in the high culture of Urdu poetry do not really care. They know well the power and exhilarating beauty of Josh’s literary creations. His dexterity and genius in transposing thoughts into words created new thoughts and expressions. Poetry flowed from his pen like water from a bubbling spring – he is said to have authored well over 100,000 A’shaar (couplets) and more than one thousand Rubaiyyats. Some among them represent the finest that Urdu poetry has to offer. This puts him into the pantheon of Urdu poets alongside giants like Ghalib and Iqbal.

But it still bothers one as to why this prodigiously prolific poet has not received, to date, recognition commensurate with his literary achievements. Perhaps one should not be surprised. Almost by definition, an iconoclast is not supposed to be popular in his own culture or country. Indeed, those who dare expose deep dark truths are likely to be reviled rather than praised. Josh the secularist, deeply unhappy about the partitioning of his country on the basis of religion, should not have expected to find recognition in the Islamic Republic of Pakistan. And he did not! It is said that at his funeral there were only seventeen persons present – this in a country where oftentimes many hundreds, or even many thousands, turn out to mourn the departed.

Does iconoclasm explain away Josh’s lack of popularity? Perhaps this is being a bit too glib. After all there are Urdu poets who also belonged to the genre of ideological and political dissidents. Some eventually did attain fame and acclaim during their lifetimes. Among Josh’s most celebrated dissident contemporaries were Faiz Ahmad Faiz, Habib Jalib, and Ahmad Faraz. Now that there is no squint-eyed General Zia-ul-Haq and his goons to muzzle them, their verses have found their way into rather staid drawing rooms, and are even sung and recited on television. So why is Josh, who passed away even earlier, mysteriously absent?

Perhaps there are other answers as well. Josh’s poetry is complex in thought, rich in structure, and uses alliterations and allusions that are subtle. The language is oftentimes difficult: its comprehension requires a vocabulary wider than possessed by the average reader of Urdu. Although a century ago they would have been easily understood, many of the words he casually uses have become arcane and unfamiliar. This is still truer in the birthplace of Urdu – India – where the language is increasingly marginalized, vulgarized, and stripped of its grace and finery. Moreover, contrary to later trends of Urdu poetry, Azad Sha’aree or free verse was always anathema for Josh. As a stickler for rules, he insisted upon purity of form and adhered to its rules as though he was composing some deeply classical musical raga. So, another possible answer could be: Josh is for the connoisseur, not the masses. 

In this short essay I shall draw from Josh’s poetry examples that reflect his weltanschauung. His rebellious pen directs withering criticism upon the existing order, challenges those who draw boundaries between peoples, and advocates rational thought over dogmas of the Marxist left or the religious right. His libertarian views and contrarian lifestyle set him apart from the crowd. The conclusion is that this remarkable poet was shunned because his message was too radical for those times, and is even more so today.

A Quintessential Libertarian

Three hundred years ago, philosophers of the European Enlightenment period struggled to define the limits and meaning of individual freedom and liberty. Are these always good things, or only in particular situations and circumstances? When should liberties be curtailed, if they must? The classic libertarian, John Stuart Mill, said:

The sole end for which mankind are warranted, individually or collectively, in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their number, is self-protection. That the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilised community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others….Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign.

Note the key phrase – the individual is sovereign! It runs smack against ideologies of collectivism, as well as the norms of a traditional, religious society. Josh Malihabadi had not studied philosophy or its history. Nor did he have a university degree. Quite probably, he had not read Mill. But being instinctively a rebel, Josh rediscovered and re-expressed in his own idiom the fundamental yearning of all humans to be free:


It is Translation:

·         It is a taunt on the organization of this Universe

·         The tangled (confused) march of time

·         Move away heavens! Go back O angels!

·         Man does not accept chains of slavery 

ز … Sarcasm, satire, taunt ام۔ّاي اشہب ِ .. lit: The horse of (changing) days, metaphorically: the passage of time

ژوليده۔—tangled, confused, disorganized خرامی – gait, walk, running, (style of) movement For Josh as a libertarian, what one eats, drinks, wears, or does in private is a matter of personal freedom and not for any state or society to decide or regulate. This is opposite to how our world actually works: heinous crimes frequently go unpunished but an individual may be pillorized, publicly humiliated, and stripped of dignity for actions that have harmed no other. Josh lashes out against this hypocrisy:

·         (A rough translation: Insanity thrives, ill-will thrives, enmity thrives, chaos thrives, disorder thrives, rumouring thrives, bribery thrives, conflict thrives, and theft thrives. In short, all that is bad does so splendidly well. Drink the blood of man and it matters but little. Drink wine from the grape and you are damned till eternity.)

What a brilliant encapsulation of our collective experiences! On the one hand, Pakistanis find themselves trapped with venal and kleptocratic political leaders, who empty the public treasury again and again, and public servants and policemen who stuff their pockets. On the other side are hate-filled ideologues who stoke angry fires of faith; murders and massacres follow. Nevertheless, state and society pardon criminals but reserve their harshest punishments for innocents who merely exercise their right to personal choice.

The victims of this vile hypocrisy: the daughter who dares choose her mate instead of obeying her parents, the woman who seeks refuge from a brutal husband, the student who points out his teacher’s mistake in class, the young man who breaks from the stupefying traditions of his village, the university girl who dares to hold hands with her boyfriend, and the thinking person who sets aside the faith of his ancestors. They are hounded, beaten, defaced with sulphuric acid, whipped and paraded naked, jailed, and some have been thrown before ferocious dogs that ripped apart their flesh. An unending deluge of horrors flows whenever one opens the daily newspaper. Yet, while moralizers on television, and in places of worship, prattle endlessly about “sinful behaviour”, they are silent about human suffering. In fact, they often gladly contribute to it.

The ongoing Talibanisation of Pakistan is surely the antithesis of freedom, a crushing blow to the human spirit and a re-tribalisation of society. Threatened more than all else is freedom for Pakistani women. In just one year there were 1400 reported honor killings. In much of rural Pakistan a woman is likely to be spat upon, beaten, or killed for being friendly to a man or even showing to him her face. Newspaper readers expect – and get –a steady daily diet of stories about women raped, mutilated, or strangled to death by their fathers, husbands, and brothers. Energetic proselytizers like Farhat Hashmi, never once mentioning these recurring tragedies, have made deep inroads even into the urban middle and upper classes. Their emphasis is on covering women’s faces, putting women back into the home and kitchen, excluding them from public life, and destroying ideas of women’s equality with men. Female state officials have been shot and killed, and Fatwas issued against others. A hypocritical society sinks to ever lower depths even as the collective piety increases by the day, and the faithful teem into mosques.

Oppression by tradition, custom, and religion is nothing new. But once upon a time, defiant messages of freedom – like Josh’s – could strongly resonate with the Pakistani public. Many will remember that powerful speech of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto – which bears an eerie similarity to the poem quoted earlier. Bhutto had lashed out against his mullah detractors in the 1970 elections saying: Ha’an Main Sharab Peeta Hoon, Logon Ka Khoon Nahin Peeta [Yes, I drink wine but not the blood of innocents]. The crowd roared approval. Bhutto won the first – and perhaps the only genuinely significant election – in Pakistan’s history. Tragically, he betrayed his electorate and reneged later on much of what he said he stood for. But, in the end, his capitulation to the mullahs and instituting Islamic laws did not save his neck. He died writhing at the end of a noose that he fashioned for himself.

Would Bhutto’s boldly defiant message – or something similar that violates today’s social norms – have the same effect today? Could it even be voiced? Unlikely! On the contrary, such a frank public admission would be suicide for any whisky-drinking military general or political leader. Unlike Bhutto, the new crop of leaders cannot take chances, being aware that within the Pakistani lower-middle and middle classes there now lurks a grim and humourless Saudi-inspired revivalist movement that cannot tolerate even a whiff of irreligiousity. Everyone knows that public figures – including Pakistan’s present and past presidents – cheat on their wealth declarations, do not pay their due share of taxes, rig elections, bribe judges, eliminate rivals, and place unqualified favourites into positions of power. But all is washed clean as they rush to perform Umrah several times a year in Saudi Arabia. Their unctuous piety is displayed in Ramzan with lavish fast-breaking Iftar parties and Taraweeh prayers. If any blemishes remain, they can always be wiped off with an extra Haj pilgrimage.

Who can deny that the times have changed? A transformed Pakistani culture now frowns upon every form of joyous expression, including the dance and music that had been a part of traditional Muslim life for centuries. Kathak dancing, once popular among the Muslim elite of India, has no teachers left in Pakistan. In Taliban controlled areas of the Frontier province, even the entirely male-performed Khattak dance has disappeared. Thousand year old statues are blown up, and education for girls declared haram. Lacking any positive connection to culture and knowledge, this new revivalism seeks to eliminate “corruption” by strictly regulating individual freedoms.

Meanwhile Pakistani urban elites, disconnected from the rest of the population, comfortably live their lives through their vicarious proximity to the West. Even the bearded ones lust for the “Green Card”. But on Fridays they don their prayer caps and drive their shiny new imported cars to their neighbourhood mosque. Rich but bored middle-aged housewives, whose only job is to manage a fleet of servants, go to Al-Huda centres and return clad in Burqas. Their conversion to the Faith has been quick and expedient.

Those Pakistanis who consider their country morally superior to the West should be deeply ashamed that, while they burn churches and temples in their country, mosques and Islamic Centres flourish in America. There is no church in Saudi Arabia but new mosques are perennially under construction in the US and Britain. Do those who fulminate day and night in Pakistan against religious persecution of Muslims in the West ever reflect on this fact?

Words fail to describe recent horrors. In 2009 a frenzied mob of 20,000 Muslims went on a rampage against Christians in the town of Gojra in Punjab. They had been put into a state of madness by mullahs in madrasas and mosques, who fired them with the notion that a Christian man had destroyed a page of the Quran. The mob destroyed dozens of houses and houses and burnt several Christians to death, including women and children. Of course, there is long history of attacks against minorities in Pakistan and this was just one of very many. The entire village of Shantinagar had been destroyed by another Muslim crowd in 1997. Then there is the tragic story of a mill-worker who had been beaten to death near Gujranwala for eating at a restaurant in spite of a prominently displayed notice “No Christians Allowed”. Perhaps he thought that he could sneak in unnoticed. What is especially sad is that, in a protest demonstration by Christians in Islamabad against the Gojra massacre, there were no Muslims. The Pakistani media, knowing full well that it was lying, passed off the massacre as a “clash between two groups”.

Secular honesty has few followers in an age where hypocrisy is an accepted way of life. Deceit and theft are guarantors of prosperity in today’s Pakistan. Josh, the poet, cries out in a moral wilderness.