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South Asia’s Apostle of Secular Humanism – Josh Malihabadi (Part 2)


By Pervez Hoodbhoy 

At the crack of dawn on 23 March 1931, the twenty four year old revolutionary Bhagat Singh, together with his two colleagues Sukh Dev and Raj Guru, were hanged until pronounced dead. They had courted arrest after throwing bombs – which did not cause casualties – to protest the British occupation of India. Specifically, they had expressed their opposition to the visit of the Simons Commission. Charged with determining the quantum of freedom allowable to the natives, the Commission had no Indian members. Widespread public protests had had no effect upon the court’s decision to award capital punishment to the three revolutionaries.

Josh Was Anti-Imperialist Yet Pro-Modern


A sorrowing Josh composed a poem which he read out in the same city, not far from where the three young men had been executed:

(A rough translation: Hear this all who care for life and love in this world. A voice speaks from the sky. That a moment of freedom is better than a life of slavery.) 

Josh’s admiration for Bhagat Singh was not merely because this young man was a fighter, but also because he was a free-thinker and atheist. With a keen sense of history and commitment to his goals, Bhagat Singh had educated himself in matters of society and politics before picking up the gun. In this he differed from most others engaged infighting the British who had thought little about the contours of a post independence society.

For Josh, a Muslim, the fact that Bhagat Singh was a Sikh was irrelevant. What mattered was the inherent injustice of being ruled from afar, and the violent oppression of the colonizers. Even as they prepared for an eventual exit, a class of sycophants was assiduously cultivated by the British. They would remain as instruments for colonial domination, rule from afar. Josh thunders against this elite, who had donned the mantle of their former masters:

(Rough translation: These special friends of the British. Whose cudgels had rained upon us blow after blow. Blows, that our still-aching heads cannot forget. Yet today they thrive and thrive. In a flash devils have turned into angels. They are now the captains of our ship of destiny)

Josh’s clear-headed, secular thinking was not shared by most Indians, Muslim or Hindu. Religious reasons competed with secular ones for fighting the British. The “Sepoy Mutiny” of 1857 was triggered when the British introduced new rifle cartridges rumoured to be greased with oil made from the fat of animals. The fat of cows was taboo to Hindus while Muslims protested the pig fat. Although Muslims had suffered more than Hindus, they tended to oppose the British for religious reasons more than Hindus.

The reason goes back into history. Although colonization had hit all native peoples hard, it left Muslims in India relatively more disoriented and confused than Hindus or Sikhs. Three hundred years earlier, the development of modern science in the West had led to the emergence of a capitalist order that provided the impetus to forcibly expand Western access to markets and sources of raw materials. Conquest by forces from across the oceans changed forever the comfortable world of India’s Muslims who had dominated India for a thousand years. The establishment of British dominion during the 18th and 19th centuries dealt a death blow to the Moghul Empire. Elsewhere, Napoleon’s invasion of  Egypt in 1798 led to a series of changes that ended with the break-up of the Ottoman empire, the last of the great Muslim empires. 

European countries colonized virtually all the Muslim world from East Asia to West Africa. A mercantilist and industrializing Western metropolis was on the ascendancy. The old Indian order gasped and then died, unable to withstand the forces unleashed by Scientific Revolution. Bahadur Shah Zafar, the last Moghul emperor, vengefully blinded by the British, spent his last days in captivity. He wrote beautiful Urdu poetry which many people have on their lips even today. But he stood for little besides a decadent monarchy and an order of things that could offer little to the people of India.

The brutalization of a pre-scientific native people by scientifically minded colonists drew a variety of responses ranging from cooptation and despair, to non-cooperation and resistance. Humiliation and helplessness, and a deep sense of resentment, made it difficult for most to see the diversity of the West and its great achievements of the Enlightenment. In any case, the orthodoxy had little use for scientific rationality and democratic pluralism. For them, the Firangis (foreigners) were simply Kafirs.

The anti-Firangi movement amidst the Muslim religious orthodoxy was centred around Deoband, a town in northern India. The Deoband madrassa operated under the slogan that Islam was in danger. Established nine years after the 1857 uprising, it set itself the task of training Islamic revolutionaries who would fight the British; today Pakistani Deoband Ulema provide the ideological basis for the Taliban in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

The Deoband School became particularly active in demanding the restoration of the caliphate, which had been eliminated by Kamal Ataturk in 1924. Under Maulana Mahmud ul-Hasan and Maulana Husain Ahmad Madni, Deobandis were politically radical, but the movement was socially conservative. Their goal mission was to preserve traditional Islamic learning and culture.

Although it was strongly opposed by the Deobandis, a movement of Muslim modernists emerged in the middle of the nineteenth century. Centering around Syed Ahmad Khan, it sought acceptability for an interpretation of Islam consistent with science and reason. The Muslim elite expanded its educational horizon by allowing its children to study the English language, science, and other secular subjects. Nevertheless, the bulk of Indian Muslims remained rooted in the past and education remained confined to religious subjects for the Muslim masses. The Maulanas of Bengal, like the Deobandis of Uttar Pradesh, were adamantly opposed to secular education. In 1835 they collected 8000 signatures against the education reforms proposed by Lord Macaulay, a member of the Supreme Council of India. But these very reforms had been welcomed by the Hindus of Bengal who earnestly supplicated the British for still more schools and colleges. These supplications earned them the contempt of Muslim leaders, who charged that they were sucking up to the rulers.

Muslim conservatism in education was to have grave consequences for Muslim societies everywhere. In the 21st century the results of this resistance are evident: India stands at the threshold of being a major technological and economic power while Pakistan remains mired in the backwaters. Pakistan’s is being devastated by an Islamic resurgence in the form of Talibanisation which, as it gains further ground, threatens to send its people back to the darkest of ages.

In those times, could one have been for progress and yet have been fighting against colonialism? Josh Malihabadi, like other secular Muslim Indian nationalists, thought this was certainly possible. British rule had to be resisted because it was coercive, unequal, and discriminatory even if it had brought elements of the Enlightenment with it. He therefore hated using the English language. But, a half-century before Josh was born, Muslim progressives had already been deeply divided on these questions. For example, Jamaluddin Afghani had sought to bring scientific enlightenment to Muslims while also energetically seeking to overthrow colonial rule across the Muslim world. But he was at loggerheads with another forward-looking contemporary, Syed Ahmad Khan, who had firmly allied himself and his Muslim followers with India’s masters, and wanted Muslims to learn science and English. Nevertheless, Afghani and Syed Ahmad agreed on one central point – they both saw traditional cultures as having run their course and now out of steam. They knew that the obstacle to social, cultural, and economic progress was not imperial occupation alone, but also fossilized thought rooted in ancient times. Josh’s position is probably closer to Afghani’s rather than Syed Ahmad Khan’s. He was against the British – and the English language – but he reserved his strongest attacks against tradition and culture as instruments of mental enslavement. His rhythmically fascinating poem, Murdo’on Ki Dhoom , or, “The Cacophony of the Dead” is a powerful blow against the fossilization of thought:

(A rough translation: The dead drive our people mad. The dead steal the minds of the living. The dead unleash mighty storms of superstitions. Our minds are trapped in tombs and morgues. The sky too belongs to the dead. Look! Listen to the cacophony of the dead!)

In this poem, Josh speaks equally to Hindus and Muslims, city elites and rural poor, educated and illiterate. Held down firmly by the dead hand of belief and tradition, they drown in superstition and illogic. They pray for rain, attribute earthquakes to the wrath of god, think supplications to heaven will cure the sick, seek holy waters that will absolve sin, look to the stars for a propitious time to marry, sacrifice black goats in the hope that the life of a loved one will be spared, recite certain religious verses as a cure for insanity, think airliners can be prevented from crashing by a special prayer, and believe that mysterious supernatural beings stalk the earth. These superstitions hold as much today as they did decades ago.

The bizarre illogic sometimes boggles the mind. For example, India’s 1998 nuclear tests were preceded by serious concern over the safety of cattle at the Pokharan test site. Former Indian foreign minister Jaswant Singh writes “For the team at the test site – which included A. P. J. Kalam, then the head of the Defence Research and Development Organisation – possibly death or injury to cattle was just not acceptable.” India aspires to being a world power, but no Indian politician today can suggest that cows can be eaten. No politician in Pakistan dare suggest that praying for rain won’t work. Yet, these neoliths have nuclear science and both countries can annihilate each other in a matter of minutes.

The Cacophony of the Dead continues:

(A rough translation: The dead will not let reason flower. They will not block flowing rivers of superstitions. They will not let minds question and research. They will not allow blind belief to be disobeyed. But they certainly ensure that nothing changes. Look! Listen to the cacophony of the dead!)

Deeply conscious of the calamitous decline in the intellectual energy of Muslims since the Golden Age of Islam, Josh wondered aloud at the causes. What caused a wonderfully alive and intellectually productive civilization to falter, then collapse? Allama Muhammad Iqbal, who is Pakistan’s national poet, in his epic dialogue with God (Shikwa and Jawab-e-Shikwa) saw the straying of Muslims from the True Path of the Quran as the reason. But Josh adopts the diametrically opposite path of the “Muatizilla” tradition of Muslim rationalist philosophers.

The dominance of the Muatizilla over long periods of time between the 9th and 13th centuries accounts for practically all of Islamic scientific progress in those times. Their ultimate defeat – marked by bloodshed and persecution – marked the end of Islam’s Golden Age. The Muatizilla, who battled their Ashari adversaries on the central issue of freewill versus pre-destiny, believed that Allah had empowered man with the power of reason, the use of which could lead him to choose between alternatives. The contrary opinion – that of the traditionalists – was that Man was a mere creature of fate, an irrelevance in the greater scheme of things. A straw in the wind, he could be blown hither and thither. All had been predetermined; it was useless to struggle against destiny. Therefore, supplicate Allah and heed his Book; that is the best that can be done. Striking hard against this notion of helplessness, Josh’s Aadmi Nama (In the Name of Man) is a paean of extraordinary eloquence to the powers of Man:

(Rough translation: Look and listen, o’ revered mullah. Look at Man’s dignity and grace. Man is the flower of life’s essence. Man gives color to this world, meaning to its existence, waters the arid desert, creates the wealth of the universe. ) Josh’s attack is head-on, without hesitation or apology. His poetic eloquence pushes him deep into dangerous territory. Perhaps, some might argue, a bit too far. Aadmi Namacontinues:

(A rough translation: With his hand Man fashions idols and images. With the power of words he creates the gods. With his superstition he makes the angels. With his intelligence he discovers qualities of the mind. With his mind he walks towards understanding himself. With his understanding he finds the house of knowledge. Man, source of knowledge and worthy of knowing. Man, creator of belief and disbelief. Man, who knows of cause and effect. Man, who shall one day win over death.) But where did Man come from? Josh was an unabashed believer in the processes of physical law which have produced the wonders of nature culminating in the most wonderful of them all – the human race:

(Rough translation: Life is the proud result of Evolution. Life is a gift of water and fire, the miracle of earth and dust.)

While other poets – Ghalib, most notably – have sniped from the sides, Josh declares open war on blind belief. His opponents screamed: Idolater! Worshipper of man! But little happened because Josh was an old man when died, his poems were little understood, and he had certainly lived in better times. One wonders: were he alive today, would he still be able or willing to write these lines? Most probably this poet would have been ripped to shreds by a shrieking mob, perhaps like the ones which burnt churches in Shantinagar and Gojra, or that in Shabqadar which had chased a terrified Ahmadi up a tree and shot him as he pleaded for his life.

URL of Part 1:’s-apostle-of-secular-humanism-–-josh-malihabadi-(part-1)/d/98339