OVER A COFFEE : History telling the Nasim Hijazi way — Dr Haider Shah
His readers see an imaginary historical past where a young, brave and kind-hearted Muslim prince is always pitted against a vile, treacherous and cruel non-Muslim ruler
Nasim Hijazi has made a considerable contribution to the treasure trove of Urdu literature with his historical fiction writing. Little conscious of the distinction between historical fiction and history, a whole generation of unwary readers of Hijazi has, however, become unable to sift literary myths from reality. His readers see an imaginary historical past where a young, brave and kind-hearted Muslim prince is always pitted against a vile, treacherous and cruel non-Muslim ruler.
As Hijazi never claimed to be a historian, he can be exonerated of the charge of radicalising our gullible impressionist young readers. However, more glaring are the writings of those who masquerade as historians in the popular media outlets and provide opiated doses to a hallucination-prone circle of readers. One luminary, Bashiruddin Mahmood, an engineer associated with the nuclear programme, authored many books with the sole aim of Islamising physics and then claimed that Pakistan’s energy crisis could be solved by trapping energy from jinns (genies). More recently, the self-proclaimed father of Pakistan’s nuclear programme, Dr A Q Khan appeared in a popular TV talk show where he endorsed Agha Waqar’s water kit-run car as a great achievement of Pakistan. If these scientists were developing our nuclear bomb, I am not sure whether we possess nuclear bombs or some inflated balloons lying inside the bunkers.
On the eve of Eid-ul-Azha, I was asked by some of our rationalist society friends to do a gentle surgery of the claims made by Orya Maqbool Jan in one of his Urdu writings. The rebuttal from our respected friend came swiftly with a tinge of venom. I was declared “Jahalat ki faseel mein qaid daanishwar” (an intellectual imprisoned in the fortress of ignorance). I have no qualms about accepting the charge up to “imprisonment in ignorance” bit but the burden of being a “daanishwar” is too heavy and better be left in the exclusive domain of Jan and his tribe. Like my fellow rationalist members, from Socrates I have learnt to ask questions of the knowledgeable ones, and from Julius Fuchik acquired an inspiration to paint life on the walls of the gallows. We never claim to know it all but we are never afraid of asking questions when they crop up in our minds. It is our belief that stating a half-truth is more dangerous than a blatant lie and hence must be properly scrutinised.
Jan repeated the same references that due to obscurity are not readily available to a common reader. While extolling the virtues of the Mughal rulers, especially Aurangzeb and the rulers of Bengal, he conveniently ignores well-researched and highly respected works, e.g. of Sheikh Muhammad Ikram on the rise and fall of the Mughal Empire. I do not want to become an advocate for the British colonists. The East India Company (EIC) was a business venture of London-based merchants and the British traders had come to the East Indies in search of corporate profits and not for charity. Just like any other nation, they had many self-enriching crooks and some thrill-seeking adventurists. My problem, however, is viewing history as pure black and white, as we need to be objective in our reading of past events. An important fact must not be missed that the European nations were then often at war in Europe, which had a spillover effect in the Indian subcontinent as well. They, therefore, fortified their trading positions and gradually got involved in the local wars of succession that were frequently happening among Indian rulers and were supported by rival European traders. A dispassionate analysis of history would help us learn why the British were able to conquer the whole of India with just a few thousand soldiers.
Jan fondly uses some references to build a thesis that prior to the arrival of the EIC, India was teeming with knowledge and that there were thousands of educational institutions. The chief references that Jan relies upon for this bold assertion are quotes from Will Durant’s Story of Civilisation and Major Basu’s use of Max Muller’s quotation in his book on Indian history. Using Durant and Muller for establishing the claim of a highly developed educational system in medieval India is just like using a quote from Charles Darwin to support the Intelligent Design theory of creationists. While Durant views Muslim rulers as a bunch of barbarians who did not miss a chance of looting the treasures of an advanced civilisation of those times, Muller, a German philologist, was a popular critic of the Hindu belief system and advocated its cleansing by Christian reformers. When they mention village schools, they refer to the elaborate system of Brahmin-led theology teaching in ancient India. Alexander Hamilton is also quoted as a main reference by Jan. Hamilton, a merchant and a ship’s captain in the Far East, covers the period of 1688-1723 in his travelogue A New Account of the East Indies. He mainly narrates the local weather and other cultural traits of various inhabitants. There is only one mention of educational institutions when he discusses Hindu theology and its teaching in village schools of Thatta. Hamilton mentions meeting a professor of Indian history who tells him that Alexander the Great had attacked India with magical beasts due to which Porus was unable to defeat him. Perhaps Jan has taken too much inspiration from this type of interpretation of history, and hence, has translated Hamilton’s account as an elaborate arrangement for teaching of ‘uloom-o-funoon’ in India.
Perhaps the readers can judge for themselves if half-baked truths should be taken as accounts of history.
[The writer teaches public policy in the UK and is the founding member of the Rationalist Society of Pakistan. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org]