Selfless scholar of the old school

January 17, 2021

Prof Saeed did a commendable job by writing Islamia College’s history in two volumes

The other day, the news of Prof Ahmed Saeed’s demise gave me a pang of searing anguish and sadness. A workaholic historian with diminutive figure and unassuming persona, imbued in an unequivocal love for Pakistan, has closed his eyes to this world forever. He led a quiet life and left quietly.

All that one can recall supports his description as a scholar tied to the methods and mannerism typical of the old school. He wrote letters instead of emails to his friends and acquaintances, sought help from others to access digital sources and always used public transport as he did not own any vehicle.

More importantly, Prof Ahmed Saeed did not know the trick to market himself, which was a big ‘failure’ on his part. That probably was the reason he had never been recommended for any civil award despite a huge corpus of work. His book, Trek to Pakistan, is a treasure trove for students and teachers alike.

To my reckoning, it is the best book on Pakistan Movement by any Pakistani historian, written for the students. Hasool-i-Pakistan, his first Urdu book on Pakistan Movement, was written with a great deal of passion and ran into several editions. But he never promoted his books or articles through Facebook or other social media outlets. He was selfless like a medieval sufi and for him the biggest reward was his scholarly pursuits.

It agonises me to admit the sad fact that he would not be greatly missed given the set peculiarities of the milieu we inhabit, in which scholarship is deemed least important. Given our priorities, Prof Ahmed Saeed is likely to be treated as yet another person who was born, lived his life and died. A few one liner exclamations on the Facebook or twitter, betraying regret on his passing away and, one or two references in which his services would be provided a lip service - that would be the end of Ahmed Saeed’s saga.

Prof Ahmed Saeed was ideally suited to work in the archives but, sadly, no one thought about it. He was not that effective a speaker; probably shyness was one reason that he felt comfortable wielding a pen instead of wagging his tongue. He had been exploited because of his inability to assert himself orally. Some of his contemporaries who were assigned to manage research centres like, Research Society of Pakistan, frowned upon him just because he used to come almost daily and did his work with usual diligence.

He never complained about the insolence meted out to him. Similarly, he hardly complained about the lack of resources or the general indifference shown to him by many small-time people holding a position of power. The only complaint that he used to lodge was when he was denied access to certain material.

He was very acerbic on the way his project regarding the compilation of the editorials of the Zamindar had been impeded. That project was sponsored by Maulana Zafar Ali Khan Trust. Six volumes had been compiled by Prof Saeed with quite a scholarly introduction. I have a volume on my shelf that deals with the speeches of Maulana Zafar Ali Khan (Guftar-i-Maulana Zafar Ali Khan). It is undoubtedly a valuable source of history. But it is just the first volume.

He hardly complained about the lack of resources or the general indifference shown to him by many small-time people holding a position of power.

No one has a clue about the subsequent volumes. It is a matter of great shame that the project, that is so relevant and useful, seemed to have been shelved, one wonders why? I will earnestly plead that the project be completed because it would perpetuate the memory of Maulana Zafar Ali Khan and not the tangible assets accumulated through the Trust created in the name of the great journalist.

Given the importance of that project, it ought to be brought at least up to 1947, which would be a great source of history containing a unique wealth of information and insight for the students and scholars of history and politics. Likewise, Prof Saeed wanted to compile the editorials of Inqilab, the newspaper brought out by Abdul Majid Salik and Ghulam Rasul Mehr into a multi-volume compendium, but no one listened and entertained his wish.

Prof Saeed’s documentation skill was extraordinary. He exhibited it while putting together various documents on Muslim Anjumans/organisations which came about in the 19th and 20th Centuries in Northern India. These works, Anjuman-i-Islamia Amritsar being one of them, may help historians to look at state-sponsored Pakistan’s historical narrative from a fresh vantage point.

If read closely, the work produced by Prof Saeed underscores the importance of regional voices, like the way Muslims from Amritsar or Jallandher thought and acted in 1930s and 1940s. Therefore, his scholarly focus had been on the substratum of the national history that tended to obscure several significant intellectual strands vital for a profounder understanding of history.

The same can be said about his book on the history of Islamia College, Lahore. As a student of history, I can very well understand how daunting an undertaking it is to write the history of a living institution. Such an attempt was made by the preceding administrations of GC University Lahore and a professor of English literature was hired to write the history of the institution. But despite the lapse of more than a decade the project is in a limbo. But Prof Saeed, a specialist historian, did a commendable job by writing Islamia College’s history in two volumes, which is an invaluable contribution.

Prof Sahib must have maintained a sizable personal collection of books that may include some archival sources, older newspapers, and magazines. His collection of books must have antiquarian books on history and a few manuscripts, too. His family will soon be badgered by many in a bid to grab the whole collection as a donation. My advice to the family members will be not to act in haste.

The writer is Professor in the faculty of Liberal Arts at the Beaconhouse National University, Lahore

Selfless scholar of the old school