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Shiblī Nu’mānī
Jamil Ahmad

Shiblī Nu’mānī was one of the greatest luminaries who glittered on the literary firmament of Urdu literature and the brilliance of whose achievements outshone those of his contemporaries as well as predecessors in diverse branches of knowledge. Few writers in the 19th century could achieve the versatility of the genius of Shiblī.

The impact of Western civilization brought about a reorientation in the outlook of Urdu writers which culminated in the creation of the same atmosphere for Urdu literature in India, as the Renaissance in the 16th century and the zeal for Romance in the 18th century had developed for English literature. Muhammad Husayn  Azad, Altaf Husayn  Hali and Shiblī Naumani were the torch-bearers who heralded this revolution and paved the way for later writers. Azad left behind him some good specimen of natural poetry, while Hali introduced the revolutionary changes in Urdu literature, especially in Urdu poetry. Shiblī, though not destined to be as great a poet, outmatched his two rivals as a critic, historian, biographer and philosopher.

Shiblī was born in a conservative family of Azamgarh district (UP), India, in the stormy year of 1857 and got his education from the learned teacher Maulana Muhammad Farooq Chirayyakoti. He was later employed as professor of Arabic in the Anglo-Muhammadan College, Aligarh. He was an associate of Sir Syed Ahmad Khan. He devoted himself to the service of Urdu literature and had the distinction of being the founder of “Dar-ul-Musannifīn” (The House of Authors) at Azamgarh which is still functioning and which had drawn within its portals a galaxy of talented scholars, such as Maulana Sulaiman Nadvi, Maulana Abdus Salaam Nadvi and Maulana Masūd Alam Nadvi who enriched Urdu literature by their invaluable contributions. Maulana Shiblī died in 1914. He was a profilic writer and has dozens of high class books to his credit.

The Maulana had cultivated a unique style for the conveyance of his ideas which embodied the elegance of Azad, the colloquialism of Nazir Ahmad and the simplicity of Hali. He believed in moderation and his style with slight modification could successfully be employed in scientific, poetic, critical, historical and philosophical themes. He elevated Urdu literature to an eminence with which it could easily compete with the advanced literatures of the world. He initiated the spirit of research in Urdu; some of his outstanding works are distinguished for thorough research on those subjects and may be classed with the best works of the world. Hardly any other Urdu writer had been so popular and beneficial to the educated class. His style is characterized by clarity, simplicity, lucidity and amplification of points. A logical sequence pervades his writing, which never suffer from the complexities of expression, and are distinguished for the vigour and spontaneity of expressions. Complimenting him on his immaculate style, Sir Syed Ahmad Khan once said: “Both Delhi and Lucknow should be proud of you”.

The Maulana was one of the leading figures of his time. One hardly comes across a person with a greater range of ideas and diversities of taste. He embodied in himself the attributes of a remarkable historian, a successful critic, a high class biographer and an efficient reformer. He occupies a high position as litterateur, historian and a scholar of literary research. His principal historical contributions are “Al-Farooq”, “Al-Mamūn”, “Al-Ghazali”, “Al-Nauman” and “Aurangzeb Alamgir”. In “Al-Farooq”, he deals with the life and achievements of the redoubtable Farooq-i-Azam, the Second Caliph of Islam who was known for his piety, justice, simplicity and indomitable will. Few books on the Caliph Umar in oriental literature may reach the authenticity and fluency of Shiblī’s book. “Al-Mamūn” narrates the achievements of Mamūn, the Great, whose reign is known as the golden age of Islamic culture. Mamūn was a great patron of learning and during his reign Muslims made invaluable contribution to the advancement of knowledge and various sciences and arts registered phenomenal progress. Al-Ghazali deals with the life and teachings of Imam Ghazali, the greatest religious teacher that Islam has produced and who is better known as “Hujjat-ul-Islam”. Shiblī has clearly brought our the different phases of the philosophy and mysticism of the great teacher, which ultimately revolutionized the Islamic religious thought in more than one way. The Maulana has excellently portrayed the brilliant reign of the greatest of the Mughal emperors, Aurangzeb Alamgir, who led a truly Islamic life. The example set by the pious emperor would serve as a beacon light to those who want to build their state on the foundations of Islamic polity. Shiblī, undoubtedly is the greatest historian in Urdu language and his historical works are distinguished for their authentic research and lucidity of expression. He has clothed the past grandeur of Islam in modern attire.

Maulana Shiblī has earned for himself an immortal reputation by writing the “Sīrut-un-Nabi” (The Life of the Holy Prophet) which is one of the best achievements on the subject in oriental languages. It runs into several volumes. At places the description of events is too graphic and one comes across good specimen of poetic prose, reminiscent of the passages of the celebrated “Aab-i-Hayat” of Azad; the chapter dealing with the philosophy of sacrifice and the story of Hazrat Ismail is vivid in description and superb in presentation. Besides the above, he also wrote the “Sawānih Maulana Rum” (The Biography of Maulana Rum) who was a great mystic poet of Persia and was the spiritual mentor of the late Allama Iqbal. His work “Hayat-i-Khusrou” (The Life of Khusrou) deals with the many-sided personality and poetical achievements of this celebrated Indian savant. Khusrou was a disciple of Hazrat Nizamuddin Aulia and is supposed to be one of the greatest lyrists of Persian literature and the pioneer of Urdu poetry.

The real fame of Shiblī rests on his role as an outstanding literary critic. His “Shai’r-ul-Ajam” (The poetry of the Orient) dealing with the principles of criticism and the brilliant criticism of Persian poetry may be ranked as one of the best works on literary criticism in any language. According to the famous British orientalist Professor Browne, “Shai’r-ul-Ajam” is undoubtedly the best literary estimate of Persian poetry written up to the present day. It is in this book that the Maulana has displayed his masterly hold over the literary study of literature and his depth of knowledge. It combines the high class research with the fluency and lucidity of expression. The fifth chapter of the book elaborately deals with the principles of criticism, on which he has based the poetical estimate of Persian poets. “Mowāzina-i-Anīs-u-Dabīr” (A Comparison between Anīs and Dabīr) is another standard book of literary criticism in which he has compared the achievements of the two greatest elegists of Urdu poetry. Anīs, no doubt, was greater of the two; the Maulana has fully proved with examples the superiority of Anīs, both in thought and expression. The poetry of Anīs was known for its purity of language, simplicity of diction, novelty and originality of ideas and graphic descriptions. Dabīr, on the other hand believed in the verbosity of language and excessive flights of imagination.

The Maulana wrote some excellent essays in “Maqālat-i-Shiblī” (The Essays of Shiblī) on various topics. His book “Philosophy of Islam” and “Al-Kalām” are valuable contributions to Islamic philosophy and religion.

Shiblī belongs to the modern school of Urdu Poetry. Had he exclusively devoted himself to the service of the Muse, he would have been a second Iqbal. Hali simply lamented the decline of the Muslim power, but could not seriously contemplate the remedies for saving Islam from falling into the abyss of decadence. Shiblī’s poetical career may be divided into two parts. During the first period, when he was employed at Aligarh, he was a close associate of Hali and Sir Syed Ahmad Khan. His outstanding achievement of the period is his well-known poem “Subh-i-Ummīd” (The Morn of Hope) in which he has chosen the theme of “Musaddas-i-Hali”. The only difference between the two is that Hali’s poem bristles with pessimistic ideas, while a sort of optimism pervades the poem of Shiblī which concludes with a forecast of the bright future for Islam. But the poem of Hali is superior of the two, as it maintains uniformity in standard which Shiblī’s poem so badly lacks. This poem of Shiblī comes very close to the healthy optimism preached by Iqbal in a later period. The second part of his poetical career starts from the time, when, due to ideological differences, Shiblī had to sever his connection with the Aligarh Muhammadan College and henceforward he devoted himself solely to the betterment of Muslim India. He was not an opponent of Aligarh College, but he did not like the principles of its education and its excessive liberalism. Unlike the blind imitation of the West as propagated by the Hali group, Shiblī adopted a via media and his clear insight enabled him to shun the harmful influences of Western culture and adopt the beneficial objects found in it. Hali and Shiblī both lamented the decline of Muslim power---but Hali ascribed it to their dissociation from the materialism of the West, while Shiblī attributed it to their estrangement from Islamic principles. Shiblī has given a graphic description of events in his poem “Adl-i-Jahangir” (The justice of Jahangir) and “Hamari Tarz-i-Hukūmat” (Our System of Government). He wrote a pathetic poem lamenting the premature death of his younger brother Ishaq, which fulfills all the conditions of the modern elegy.

Shiblī devoted the major part of his life to literary pursuits. He is, undoubtedly, one of the main pillars on which the grand edifice of Urdu literature rests. He, on the whole, was a versatile genius, who occupies a prominent place amongst the men of letters of this subcontinent.

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