Correcting the errors

Maulana Abul Kalam Azad’s book “India Wins Freedom” is one of the most widely read books on the events and happenings leading to the partition of India. In response to this book Rajmohan Gandhi wrote “India Wins Errors: A Scrutiny of Maulana Azad’s India Wins Freedom”(2006) which, as its self -explanatory title suggests, tried to point to some inaccuracies and errors in the Maulana’s book.

Shafey Kidwai, the winner of 2019 Sahitya Akademi Award in Urdu for his book “Sawaneh-e- Sir Syed: Ek Baazdeed”, a biographical account of Sir Syed (1817-1898) which covers some, though not all, important aspects of his life (Brown Publications, 2017), performs a similar task when he subjects another iconic book, Altaf Hussain Hali’s (1837-1914) biography of Sir Syed “Hayat-e-Javed” (1901) to a thorough scrutiny.

Source text

“Hayat-e-Javed” has generally been used as a basic source text for scores of books, both in Urdu and English, on Sir Syed. It is only appropriate that Kidwai’s book gets important notice in the bicentenary year of Sir Syed’s birth when not only the vast literature available on him is being looked at afresh but also a number of programmes on the great thinker and educationist are underway in different parts of the world, thanks to the vast network of AMU alumni.

A very respected name in Urdu literary criticism and journalism, Shafey Kidwai, interestingly, has never studied Urdu formally. The grandson of celebrated Islamic scholar Abdul Majid Daryabadi (1892-1977) has been a student of social sciences and has mostly mastered the intricacies of Urdu language at home in a literary environment. He brings the rigours of social sciences to his investigation of various facts in Hali’s book, cross checking and correcting them. A believer in C.P. Snow’s dictum ‘comment is free, but facts are sacred’, one of the methods used in his study is the critical cross checking of some opinions and facts about Sir Syed’s life in the works of his other biographers, in particular, G.F.I. Graham’s “The Life and Works of Sir Saiyyed” (1885) and Iftikhar Alam Khan’s “Sir Syed: Duroone Khana” (2006).

For him the primary source is the writings of Sir Syed Ahmad Khan, especially Sir Syed’s biography of his maternal grandfather “Sirat-e- Faridiya”, “Life of Mohammed”, his letters and the periodical “Risala Khair Khwahan” which Sir Syed started. Thus, Kidwai discovers that Sir Syed’s father’s and his sister’s names are not mentioned correctly by Hali and Graham. His father’s name was neither Mir Mohammad Muttaqi, nor Syed Mohammad Taqi, but Syed Mohammad Muttaqi whereas his sister’s name, as written by Sir Syed, was Ijbitun Nisan and not Safiatun Nisan as recorded by Hali. He also puts on record the fact that Sir Syed’s ancestors came to India during the period of Akbar, and not Shahjahan as recorded by Hali.

Excellent command

Kidwai also disagrees with Hali’s view that Sir Syed read only half-seriously the elementary books of Arabic and Persian. Syed’s writings, Kidwai argues, prove his serious reading and excellent command of the two languages. Similarly, three different dates have been given of the beginning of Sir Syed’s employment by Hali, Graham, and Alam. Kidwai casts his dice in favour of Alam who considers 1838 as the year when Syed started his official career.

Sir Syed is usually discussed as a reformer and educationist by all commentators. Kidwai throws important light on his role as the member of Viceroy’s Legislative Council. Sir Syed was deeply concerned that a lot of children died of small pox and ironically this was accepted as the curse of God. A rationalist to the core, he prepared and introduced the draft of the bill to eradicate small pox. In his second term as the member of the Council, he threw his weight behind the proposal of raising the age of civil services aspirants for Indians and conducting the examination in India as well as in England.

Of Sir Syed’s two sons, a lot has been written about his younger son Syed Mahmood (1850-1903) who was the first Indian jurist to be appointed to Allahabad High Court. Kidwai importantly dwells on the redeeming qualities of his other son Syed Hamid who was given to drinking and who had to quit his job. Kidwai also presents some interesting anecdotes from Sir Syed’s life to bring out his sense of humour, his truthfulness, and his affable nature.

Baffled by Hali’s errors, Kidwai looks at the sources of Hali’s book and discovers that Hali relied a great deal on one unpublished biography of Sir Syed written by Munshi Sirajuddin. Sirajuddin’s text, considered too hagiographic and also lacking proper style, was not approved by Sir Syed and was later handed over to Hali when he found time to write “Hayat-e-Javed”. Kidwai is scathing in his criticism of Hali’s inaccuracies which he considers unpardonable because Hali could access both Sirajuddin’s draft as well as Graham’s which had come out by then.

At the end Sir Syed’s own words on the genre of biography reveal his modesty and his care for an honest scholarship: “Biography is not hagiography. It should be such that it should be a specimen of the good and bad aspects of the subject….Writing about me that ‘ he is very learned and perfect’, how wrong is this.”

This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor

Printable version | May 13, 2021 2:32:30 PM |

Next Story