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In the charged atmosphere of the Mutiny (1857), an English officer, Noble Sahib, and a Muslim gentleman, Ibn-ul-Vaqt, are brought together under remarkable circumstances. Both of them are men of high principle and sharp intellect, on the common grounds of which they forge a lasting bond. Noble Sahib persuades Ibn-ul-Vaqt to remove the estrangement between the English and his community by adopting the English lifestyle and thus, draw his tradition-bound compatriots to a more progressive way of life. The consequences that follow are not what they had envisioned.
A profound and poignant narrative, and although a period-piece, it takes us along to be a witness to the perpetual confrontation between individual conscience and religion with its metaphysical concepts against the backdrop of the changing realities of the mundane world.
About the Author
Nazir Ahmad (1836-1912), a profound scholar, a powerful orator and the pioneer of modern fiction in Urdu, still remains unique in discussing vital issues concerning man in society. With his keen sense of realism, power of description, flexible style and the loveliness of his characters, his works at once provide entertainment and insight. He is one of those writers who brought a renaissance in Indian literature and made Urdu the language of the rising middle class with all its ideals and aspirations. His discussions on intellect and religion, together with his analytical mind taking cognisance of the East-West encounter in India make this work a classic of great contemporaty interest.
Mohammed Zakir was born in 1932 in Delhi and educated at St. Stephen’s College, Sri Ram College of Commerce and Zakir Husain College, Delhi University. For more than three decades he caught Urdu language and literarure at the Jamia MiJ1ja Islamia, Delhi. His main interests have been translation, literary criticism and Urdu linguistics. Among his published works are: A Tale of Four Dervishes (Penguin Books), Poems of Faiz Ahmad Faiz and Poems of NM. Rashed (M.D. Publications), Distracting Wordr, translations from Ghalib’s Urdu and Persian poetry, and The Quintessence of Self Culture, a translation from K.G. Saiyidain’s writings. His Lessons in Urdu Script has seen several reprints. He lives in Delhi.
Why did only the British lion roar in so vast a country like India? Writing his general history of India from 1707 to 1781, Ghulam Husain Khan Tabatabai, author of Siyarul Mutaakhkhirin (translated by F. Raymond in 1789), looked upon British rule as some sort of ‘Divine Punishment’ for the sins of the Indian ruling classes. Mirza Abu Talib 0752-1806) attributed Britain’s victory over France to its superior navy. In his Travels, first published in English in 1810, he discussed how the British turned the tables against their enemies at the battle of Copenhagen, and how their conquest of Egypt and other colonies was due to their being formidable on shore as at .sea. The great perfection to which they had brought their navy was, doubtless, the chief cause of their prosperiry and the principal source of their wealth. For Lutfullah, who wrote his travelogue in English, it was the will of that one Supreme Being that a small island, which seemed on the globe like a mole on the body of a man, commanded the greater part of the world, and kept the rest in awe. Finally, Abdul Halim Sharar, the master storyteller from Lucknow who died in 1926, attributed the British triumph to two factors. First ‘the cup of negligence and foolishness of he people of India’; secondly, the power of the British government and the British people’s ‘far-sightedness, efficiency and forbearance’ as against ‘the ignorance and self-effacement of India.’ The industrialised civilisation and its way of life was crying aloud to every nation, but ‘no one in India heard this proclamation and all were destroyed.’
These perceptions were important, for at different points of time they enable the historian to construct the story of British political supremacy in India. What some of these accounts do not reveal, however, are the reasons why strong and sustained anti-colonial sentiments came to the fore in upper India and Bengal, where they coalesced with unmistakable revivalist trends. The Faraizis, led by Haji Shariat-Allah who initiated his movement in 1818 after returning from a pilgrimage to Mecca, announced that so long as the British ruled in Bengal, congregational prayers in the mosques should not be performed. His son Dudu Miyan, representing the interests of the Muslim agriculturists, refused to pay rent and revenue, acknowledging only Allah’s sovereignty. He struck terror, in the hearts of the Hindu zamindars of Faridpur by leading at night an expedition of 800 Faraizi peasants against the powerful Ghoshes. In the 24-Parganas in West Bengal, Tiru Mir, born in 1782, campaigned for a purified Islam. His idiom was similar to that of Saiyid Ahmad of Bareilly and Shariat-Allah.
The leading Delhi scholar Shah Abdul Aziz declared India as Far al-barb (enemy territory). He believed that the Friday and Id prayers could not be performed as congregational prayers, and that it was improper to serve the British as clerks, servants or soldiers. His pronouncement sustained Saiyid Ahmad Shaheed’s exertions against the British for twenty years after the annexation of Punjab, and legitimised other 19th-century stirrings against British rule. ‘I would ask,’ stated Maulvi Syed Qutb Shah Sahib of Bareilly, ‘what course have you [Hindus and Muslims] decided on to protect your lives and faith? Were your views and mine the same, we might destroy them [the British] entirely with very little trouble; and if we do ‘so; we shall protect our religions and save the country. And, as these ideas have been cherished and considered merely from a concern for the protection of the religions and lives of all you Hindus and Mussulmans of this country, this letter is printed for your information.’ The ideological impulse from such local religious leaders led, as in the vicinity of Thana Bhawan, north of Delhi, the Muslim divines to join the 1857 uprising. Some amongst them founded a theological seminary at Deoband.
There is much evidence of the aversion to and antipathy towards the firangls and their raj. Maulvi Nazir Ahmad, who built his reputation through his creative writings and exemplified in his public life the trend to come to terms with western ideasand institutions, captured the ethos in the ‘oriental’ branch of the Delhi College. When a high-ranking British official visited the college and shook hands with the teaching staff the Head Maulvi reciprocated. But soon thereafter ‘he held his hand aloof as if it had become an impure limb. As soon as the officer turned away, he cleaned his hand not with English soap but by rubbing it with dust.’
Yet in many parts of north India, Muslim groups were prepared to make the colonial government work, seek adjustments within existing institutions and secure benefits from the administrative and bureaucratic structures. They were inclined to arrive at a workable modus vivendi with the new rulers and carve out new channels of aspirations and spiritual creativity. Hence, the growth of schools and colleges, the bold steps taken by some forward looking Muslim personalities, the incentive to join the heaven born, and the clamour for a share in decision-making bodies. Quite a few scholars opined that Hindustan was a land of peace, as the British recognised the Islamic Personal Law in cases of inheritance, succession, gifts, charitable endowments, marriage, parentage, guardianship and maintenance. This is borne out by the rulings of the Shia mujtahids in Lucknow. When the ,dim Syed Dildar Ali was questioned about the legality of taking service with the company he expressed a reluctant acquiescence as long as such employment did not involve forbidden acts.
Maulvi Nazir Ahmad’s celebrated novel’s opening lines are: ‘What made Ibn-ul-Vaqt so prominent was the fact that he adopted the English lifestyle at a time when even to learn English was considered blasphemy and to use English goods an act of apostasy.’
At another level, influential Muslim groups in various regions made the colonial government work. Thus, in rural Punjab, many sajjada-nashins agreed to be incorporated into the framework of the British administration. By early 20th century, they were regarded as an integral part of the class of rural intermediaries on whom British rule rested. In Sind, the British constructed a political system that hinged on the co-operation.
What happens to a static society wedded to its medieval modes of thought in its encounter with an assailing dynamic society armed with its growing scientific knowledge and technology? Shall it confront it with all its nostalgia of past glory only to realise that the enemy is irrefutably superior? Shall it withdraw in a conservative spirit from any contact with the assailant only to find that it is not possible? Shall it lose its identity in accepting the ethos which the new order brings? To what extent can its culture assimilate the new bearings? Should the advocates of acceptance of the new order be taken as the real revolutionaries as, later, the people take to some of the assailant’s ways? Will democratisation and secularisation vouchsafe harmony in a multi-religious society? How does the contemporary strike a fiction writer? How does he reconstruct the changing social milieu, the birth pangs of a new social order or the process of ‘cultural radiation’ in his narrative?
Such questions may have to be dealt with in a study of the socio-political and literary history of any society. The Son of the Moment, a translation of Ibn-ul-Vaqt written by Nazir Ahmad (1836-1912), the pioneer of modern fiction in Urdu, presents the late 19th-century Indian situation when beneath the external calm a struggle was going on in the minds of thinking men to meet the challenge which the establishment of the British rule had brought. It helps us understand the Indian sub-continent as it is today and may also be of some interest in the study of some Afro-Asian societies which, like India, have been under the dominance of the colonising industrialised West and most of which comprise the third world. As a piece of creative writing it may make us ponder again whether art is essentially for life, or life for art.
It is about a man, Ibn-ul-Vaqt, who saves an English officer during the 1857 Sepoy Mutiny/The First War of Indian Independence, and under his influence adopts the English dress and lifestyle. It describes his difficulties as he finds himself pitted against his tradition-ridden compatriots as well as against some haughty British officials. It is not a narrative about a timeserver as his name would suggest in common parlance. It does not also - refer to a Sufi or a mystic ‘who must live in the present, regarding neither yesterday nor tomorrow, but absorbed in the eternal Now of divine energy.’ Nor is it about a quisling, pampered by his patrons. It is about a man who is keen and aware and determined to find a new path. Ibn-ul-Vaqt actually represents the middle class born out of the ferment which was the result of the democratic ideas and rationalism brought along with the new learning introduced by the British and the new social material conditions created in India as a result of the British rule. It was a class which sought to gain the worldly advantages of the new order ‘without forfeiting the spiritual comfort of the old’. It was this class out of which were to emerge the supplanters of the British power or the new destiny-makers of India.
In describing Ibn-ul-Vaqt’s difficulties, this work, on the one hand, affords us a glimpse of the reactions of Indians to the British rule, from confrontation to acceptance, and on the other, the attitude of the British officers, marked at once by their personal intercourse with Indians as well as a stance of imperious arrogance and aloofness. It is one of those early writings of the Indians under the British rule in which they boldly brought out the shortcomings of the British government and pleaded for equality of Indians and the Englishmen as subjects of the same government. One may even find here an inkling of the spirit of rivalry between the two major communities, the Hindus and the Muslims, which was later made to develop into a cultural and political schism. How the two communities took to chauvinistic attitudes and with what continuing results, we need not discuss here. But one may easily guess here how the situation could lend itself to a policy of discrimination between these two communities by the new rulers.
Besides being an honest period piece, this work still seems relevant as India with its religiosity marked by unobliterated caste prejudices, is still struggling to work out a synthesis between tradition and modernity. It may thus also signify the quest of a synthesis between what is called the secular West and the religious East.
The author’s concern with religion in this work, as well as such other works of his, needs a special mention. To him religion is a code of conduct for private and social life, and all moral values which give meaning to it emanate from religion. His social concern with the basic idea to make the best of the world is the outcome of his religious belief that life is a probation for the next world and therefore supremely important. Such ideas do not necessarily lead to what is these days being termed as fundamentalism with its insistence on mindless conformism to the given rules, for, to Nazir Ahmad religion does not teach suspension of reason and prudence or to ignore the demands of the changing social realities. Besides this, despite the fact that so many brutalities have been carried out in the name of religion, and for so long, this much at least one has to concede that it is a humanising factor in that it seeks to provide checks on the animal instincts of man. For a man like Nazir Ahmad to whom religion and politics, that is, concern with the affairs of society, were not separate departments of life and who had a ‘sensitive awareness’ of what was going on around him, and one who had his vision of the world, it was natural to concern himself with values inspired by religion as he understood it.
Moreover, those were the days when Christian missionaries, over-conscious of the ‘white man’s burden’, could be seen propagating their religion at the street corners in big cities and towns of India. A vast amount of polemical literature in Urdu .shows how vehemently the Indians, to whom religion mattered, tried to defend their faith. With the growing realisation that British domination was not just a loss of their freedom but also a challenge to their culture and religious modes of thinking, even the politically awakened social reformers among Indians had to mix culture and religion with politics to combat the onslaught of westernisation. Some of them even tried to reinterpret their religious scriptures as well in the light of the new social realities.
Even in today’s world when intellectuals are talking about a (clash of civilisations’, we may ask ourselves what is it that may bring us close together? We have to realise that apart from deepening the divide between the developed and not so developed nations, and a rabid race of one-upmanship in taking to weaponry, what has the ethos, brought by rationalism and modernisation, given us over the last one hundred and fifty years or so? It has led us to a situation where economic consideration, which has unfortunately come to mean sheer shrewdness to make profit our of others’ misfortunes, tends to outweigh the sense of justice and accountability among the powerful and the privileged. And that, in turn, has made the world a great theatre of geo-political power-play with the hanging threat of annihilation to mankind. It has given birth to individualism and a new culture of consumerism which, among other things, shows itself in a craving for stimulation by drugs, sex and cheap television entertainment. This craving among the youth spreading all over the world shows an attitude which speaks of non-attachment, indifference, irresponsibility and selfishness. Obviously, it is a valueless approach towards human life, for it ignores the common bond of humanity. Even secularism and liberalisation seem meaningless if they leave things to take their own course rather than stir a yearning in every heart for a better and still better social order. It is to be realised that virtue if not practised and propagated amounts to be its negation. But it does not mean that such practice and propagation should be at the cost of intellectual freedom. We, and particularly those who are privileged, have to learn that the world. is to be essentially multi-cultural. We have to have a balanced outlook and in the spirit of fellow-feeling look beyond ourselves if we are to survive. Peace and prosperity are to be duly shared by all. What appears to be actually required is a harmony between people of different religions rather than the Toynbeean syncretisation of religions. Man, who unfolds the divine scheme behind all existence in the name of advancement of science and technology bringing in material progress, verily needs to adopt a standard of values which may enable him to educate his mind, his emotions and his senses; values which are born of the truth that all mankind is a family, values which may not only purify the individual but may also reconstruct and renew society in every department of life, and which science and technology are just incapable of dealing with. Hasn’t it become imperative to ponder whether the secular and the religious aspects of life should continue to be taken as provinces independent of each other? Shouldn’t the sense of discrimination between good and bad, between right and wrong, be so developed as to create in man a sense of justice and accountability which may ultimately save him from fanaticism, self-assertiveness and exclusiveness in order to bring in a better social order, peace and prosperity for all?
Ibn-ul-Vaqt Meets Mr Noble
Noble Sahib Goes to the English Camp
The Afrermath-Ibn-ul-Vaqt’s Plight
Queen Victoria Assumes Reins-Ibn-ul-Vaqt Rewarded
At the Dining Table
A Deputy Collector’s Complaints
Noble Sahib Makes Ibn-ul-Vaqt a Reformer
Ibn-ul-Vaqt Confers with Jan Nisar
Ibn-ul- Vaqt Faces Opposition
English Lifestyle and Islam
Religion and Intellect
Noble Sahib’s Departure
Ibn-ul-Vaqt’s Financial Anxieties
Hujjat-ul-Islam Goes Back to the City
On Politics and Religion
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