Lamentations of a literary theorist

August 7, 2022

Literary criticism in the Urdu language about indigenous genres is facing a dearth of argument-making and critical-thinking skills

Lamentations of a literary theorist


f one begins to read through texts of literary criticism in the Urdu language about indigenous genres like the ghazal, dastan or qissa, a scholar trained in the paradigms and theoretical frameworks used in Anglophone literary criticism will be left aghast at the dearth of argument-making and critical-thinking. Anyone who has even cast a cursory glance at these writings will not have been surprised at the Higher Education Commission chairman’s recent statement that “our education system produces neither good students nor good citizens.”

The greats of Urdu literary criticism like Shamsur Rahman Faruqi, lament this attitude towards popular genres of Urdu literature. In his five-volume study of Dastan-i-Amir Hamza, Sahiri, Shahi, Sahibqirani: Dastan-i-Amir Hamza ka Mutalea (Sorcery, Kingship, Lordship of the Auspicious Planetary Conjunction) Faruqi states that according to his research, all critical work on the dastan that he has read has always been “childish, superficial and far from realistic concerns.”

Writing in a recent article for Dawn titled Urdu Criticism and Controversies Kicked up by Kaleemuddin Ahmad, Rauf Parekh reasons that the controversies generated by Ahmad were a result of the fact that he “rejected Urdu ghazal, the crown jewel of Urdu poetry, calling it ‘a semi-barbarous genre’ and expressed his utter displeasure and disappointment over ‘non-existence’ of Urdu criticism.” Ahmad had the same opinion about the dastan and considered it a genre to be consumed only by wehshis or the uncivilised. While one might disagree with his dismissal of these genres, Ahmad’s statement about the non-existence of Urdu criticism is not without merit. Ironically, both Ahmad and Parekh are victims of the mindset they lament.

In another article based entirely on Ashfaq Hussain’s reading of Syed Nomanul Haq’s Kulliyat-i-Faiz, Parekh begins with his perturbation at the non-existence of “definitive editions of some of our great poets,” and then goes on to quote Hussain’s view that Haq’s edited volume of Faiz’s poetry is not only “incomplete” but the total absence of orthographic and diacritical marks has rendered a large number of lines out of metre. In response to Parekh’s own lament, in the absence of critical editions, any and every attempt towards one should be considered a milestone whatever its demerits. However, the demerits of an argument must be articulated keeping the traditions and values of literary criticism and good practice intact.

Parekh’s presentation of Hussain’s argument that the absence of diacritics has rendered some verses out of metre without commentary is not a critical evaluation but a wild fantasy. The lack of diacritical marks cannot render any Urdu verse out of metre. To say that the lack of diacritics can be an inconvenience to the unacquainted or the uninitiated may be considered acceptable, but this cannot render any verse out of metre. The Urdu script belongs to a consonantal writing system where vowels are to be supplied in the process of reading and enunciation – the primary meaning-making process. It is absurd to demand that this dynamism inherent in the writing system of the language be exterminated.

Linked to this is the fact that where meaning is altered by the use of diacritics, and the editor deems to make this change visible, they have added diacritics. This cannot be ordinary practice, however. It takes considerable research and delving into various religious and socio-cultural meaning-making processes to reach such a decision and is never taken lightly by editors trained in the tradition. A case in point, as discussed by Haq in his Introduction, and by Hussain in his criticism, is the word ahl-i-hikam (those who possess hikmat or wisdom) in Faiz’s Hum Dekhien Gay as opposed to ahl-i-hakam of the Iqbal Bano fame. Haq’s informed editorial decision cannot be side-lined without a properly articulated theoretical argument.

Hussain will need to respond to Haq’s original, well-researched, and documented argument at various levels to reject the latter’s decision to do so. First, this enunciation (ahl-i-hikam) had been supplied in Faiz’s lifetime and if this was problematic, the poet himself would have made amends. Haq’s research and reasoning is anything but whimsical. In Haq’s own words, “Hikam is the plural of hikma (hikmat in Urdu/ Persian) meaning “wisdom.” So it shall mean, “the possessors of wisdom” or by extension, “the philosophers”, “the thinkers”, the “ulema.” It is a rather known tradition in Islamic eschatology that on doomsday, the first to be condemned to the fire will be those who cultivated knowledge, for selfish gains.” Haq, in a recent article, brings to our knowledge a hadith to this effect, quoted, as he tells us, by the famous thinker Ghazali in his Book of Knowledge. Here we have a strong plausibility (qarina) of Faiz’s reading. Pinning this neglect to our distance from languages Faiz was well-versed in, Haq appends this understanding with the original title of the poem in Arabic Wa yabq Wajhu Rabbik (While the face of your Lord abides) and points out that this poem, in fact, borrows its imagery from various Quranic ayahs and must be studied within the tradition.

While each critic and author has the right to disagree and maintain their position on any book or article that is published and is available in the public domain, literary critics dealing with indigenous genres should not do so in a manner that does not maintain standards of good practice in literary theory. This will cause more harm than good to the largely neglected field of study. Haq’s Introduction to Kulliyat-i-Faiz follows the standard editorial practice in the compilation of critical editions. This includes a clear indication of a base text (Nuskha Hai Wafa, 2006), theoretical reasoning regarding editorial decision-making processes, and an elaborate account of where and how variations are recorded. This should be appreciated and any attempt to challenge and correct Haq’s work should come in the form of the publication of an alternative.

The writer is an assistant   professor at the Department of Social Sciences at the Lahore School of Economics. She has an MA and a PhD in critical theory from the   University of Sussex and can be reached at

Lamentations of a literary theorist