“But the political angle of this tragedy is even more troubling than the administrative angle. It will be decided by court whether the murderous act by the driver Feroz was a private act or a conspiracy was brewing in its depths, although it can be said without the fear of rebuttal that this tragedy is the natural result of the religious frenzy and extremism which has been on display in our country recently. Religious scholars give fatwas denouncing socialism as un-Islamic. Addresses, sermons in mosques and political processions present socialism as the greatest enemy of Islam. Newspapers publish such statements and essays against socialism which inflame the religious sentiments of readers and accusations of apostasy and disbelief are being made even from television and radio. The present elections are being understood as a war between Islam and disbelief and jihad against socialists is being treated as a sacred duty. Socialists are threatened that we will pull out your tongues from the nape of the neck and Indonesianize Pakistan. Socialists are attacked and their houses marked to facilitate score-settling at an opportune moment, that is, such an aggressive environment of hate, intolerance and religious bias has developed in the country that if a person murders some socialist, it will be an occasion of sorrow, not surprise. So Feroz himself confessed that he did not run over the people due to being in an agitated state or negligence, but because he wanted to kill Poland’s socialist president since that was the greatest service to Islam in his opinion.
It appears from the news of the national press that Feroz was a very active member of the P. I. A’s ‘Islamist’ union and his association with Jamaat-e-Islami is also no longer a secret. This union has created a climate of violence at Karachi airport and beating up socialists has become the custom of the union workers. The next step of this style of thought and action could be to murder a socialist in order to attain the status of a brave warrior or martyr.”
Sibte Hassan was an organic intellectual before the age of mass and social media
Replace the word “socialism” with “secularism”, and these words could have been written today, struggling and stumbling as the Pakistani state and society are at the moment, with collateral damage in the wake of the two most recent events exposing the nexus between religious fundamentalism and violence, namely the hanging of the murderer of slain Punjab governor Salmaan Taseer, Mumtaz Qadri and the horrific bomb blasts at Gulshan-e-Iqbal Park in Lahore just a few weeks ago.
But they weren’t. In fact these prescient words were written less than fifty years ago by Sibte Hassan, one of Pakistan’s most eminent public intellectuals and literary critics, who died on April 20, thirty years ago. Sibte Hassan was an organic intellectual before the age of the so-called mass and social media, where the once very pronounced boundary between reasoned intellectual analysis informed by decades of engagement and learning and mere provision of glib talk and information in our own time has now been effectively breached, and given rise to the ‘columnist’ class as our new intellectual power elite.
Edward Said, the late Palestinian-American intellectual, in his powerfully compact book based on his prestigious BBC Reith Lectures Representations of the Intellectual (1994) has outlined four pressures which challenge the intellectual’s ingenuity and will, namely: specialisation; expertise and the cult of the certified expert; the inevitable drift towards the requirements and prerogatives of power; and towards being directly employed by it.
How to combat these pressures is also what concerns public intellectuals like Said. According to him the solution lies in what he calls ‘amateurism’, “An activity that is fuelled by care and affection rather than by profit and selfish, narrow specialization.” Now of course Said was saying this while ensconced in that veritable firmament of American academia, at Columbia University in New York, a fact which does not reduce the power of his words cited above. However, Sibte Hassan occupied no such hallowed space in the Pakistani academy. His life and struggle was the very antithesis of the modern, professional, expert intellectual. Born in the early years of the twentieth century to a feudal aristocratic family in Azamgarh (the city’s other noted products were Sibte’s contemporaries, the noted Urdu poet Kaifi Azmi, the prominent literary critic Ehtesham Hussain, and Shaukat Hussain Rizvi, the Pakistani film pioneer and Noor Jahan’s ex-husband), Sibte came under the spell of Marxism while studying at Aligarh, and then under that of his journalistic mentors Qazi Abdul Ghaffar, the famous author of Laila kay Khutoot, and ‘Baba-e-Urdu’ Maulvi Abdul Haq. This journey is lovingly recorded in Sibte’s first book Shehr-e-Nigaraan.
Sibte Hassan’s life and struggle was the antithesis of the modern, professional, expert intellectual
Braving imprisonment in the United States, which had just begun its McCarthyite witch-hunts at the onset of the Cold War, Sibte Hassan completed his education from Columbia University. In fact this was his only ‘professional’ qualification. He returned – or was rather deported – to India on the cusp of independence from British rule, and immediately declared his lifelong struggle against the curse of specialisation, expertise, and power and authority in all its forms. Having joined the Communist Party of India earlier, he was one of the founding members of the Communist Party of Pakistan (CPP), along with Sajjad Zaheer and Faiz Ahmad Faiz, as well as the Progressive Writers Association.
Kamran Asdar Ali’s recent book on the history of communism in Pakistan gives a useful vignette of Sibte Hassan’s struggle and the trials and tribulations the CPP faced in the early, difficult years of Pakistan. However perhaps limited by its ambit, the book falls short of ascribing to Sibte Hassan the role of one of the seminal figures in the battle of ideas which was fought largely in the Urdu language in the early decades of Pakistan. The debate was between Sibte and two of his contemporaries Muhammad Hassan Askari, an ex-progressive turned conservative and Naseem Hijazi, the writer of Urdu potboilers glorifying such foreign conquerors as Muhammad bin Qasim and Hajjaj bin Yousaf. This battle of ideas has scarcely been documented in detail, but the truth is that if the early nineteenth century was dominated by the intellectual clashes for the Muslim heart and mind between Sir Syed Ahmad Khan and his equally learned opponents like Jamaluddin Afghani, Akbar Alllahabadi, Shibli Nomani and Deputy Nazeer Ahmad; giving way to the skirmishes between Allama Muhammad Iqbal and Abul Ala Maududi in late-British India; then in postcolonial Pakistan it was the battle of ideas between Sibte, Askari and Hijazi which has continued to shape the debate over issues of identity, progress, religion and secularism – intellectually and in the public imagination.
Another unheralded achievement of Sibte Hassan was the progressive journalism he did along with Faiz Ahmad Faiz, in such leading progressive newspapers as Imroze, Pakistan Times and Lail-o-Nahar. Reading these interventions and editorials today, one can in fact compile a veritable people’s and social history of the period in Pakistan ranging from the 1950s to the 1980s on topics of staggering variety – political culture, political and constitutional arguments, the problems of people’s peace, election preparations, Pakistan-India relations, foreign affairs (United States, Pakistan and the Muslim world), social welfare, education, culture and civilisation, constitution-making, literature and the arts, East Pakistan, religion and extremism, etc. that continue to speak to us today, beset as we are by an existential struggle between modernity and backwardness, secularism and fundamentalism, democracy and dictatorship, authoritarianism and pluralism.
It is not just in his journalism that Sibte Hassan shone. After the banning and eventual weakening of the CPP and his release from his last stint in jail in 1955, he devoted himself to writing in Urdu for the masses in order to educate them about the syncretic origins of Pakistan’s past, the secular origins of Pakistan and about its popular movements and traditions. Never apologetic about his Marxist beliefs and as comrades around him were murdered, exiled, forced underground or simply switched sides (Moscow, Peking or the Pakistani establishment), Sibte Hassan projected his vision for a classless, rational and secular society into his writings, rising above dogma and becoming in the process a champion for a secular and progressive Pakistan. It is also one of his achievements that he rescued both Sir Syed Ahmad Khan and Muhammad Iqbal from the clutches of the obscurantists and some of his more dogmatic comrades, and claimed them back for the Progressives. He writes on Iqbal, “This conspiracy to project Iqbal as a revivalist, and as a champion of lost causes, is not only a disservice to the poet, it is also doing a great harm to the people, especially to our new generation. Since our young men and women have been, for years, fed on Iqbal’s metaphysical ideas alone, the radical-minded among them disown Iqbal as an obscurantist who has no message for the future. Some of our progressive critics also suffer from similar prejudices against Iqbal. They, too, are throwing the baby out with the bathwater. But this subjective approach is both unscientific and ahistorical because if Iqbal is studied objectively, if the husk is removed from the kernel, it would become apparent that Iqbal was a great friend of the people and an apostle of social revolution. By identifying Iqbal with reactionary forces of society, the progressives would be depriving themselves of an effective weapon against their opponents and allowing the vested interests to use Iqbal for their own anti-people interests.”
Not being a ‘specialist’, ‘expert’ and a drifter towards power and authority in the Saidian sense, Sibte Hassan took on big, much-needed subjects in his many works. Almost all of his major works have aesthetically pleasing titles: whether the history of socialism in Musa say Marx Tak; or the departed cultures of the ancient Orient in Maazi kay Mazaar (which won a literary prize instituted by leading Pakistani industrialists, the Dawoods, and therefore rejected by Hassan, prompting a poetic tribute to the latter from Habib Jalib); and documenting The Battle of Ideas in Pakistan.
Sibte Hassan took part in a battle of ideas against the likes of Naseem Hijazi
However the work which in the humble opinion of this scribe crowns Sibte Hassan’s long and distinguished struggle to make Pakistan a secular and progressive beacon for the Muslim world and can be described as his enduring literary monument is Naveed-e-Fikr. It attempts to do for our own troubled times what Iqbal’s great Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam attempted to do for Muslim India in the early part of the 20th century. Sadly, what hope does this work – a tribute to the relentless quest for knowledge and the victory of enlightenment over obscurantism – have of being widely read, prescribed in university syllabi or pondered upon anew, when our national poet’s above-mentioned work barely merits a mention in our national conversation?
2016 is being celebrated as Sibte Hassan’s birth centenary year and as we continue to cheer and applaud his courage of refusal – connecting him to a long line of distinguished predecessors like Sir Syed Ahmad Khan, Altaf Hussain Hali, Iqbal and Allama Niaz Fatehpuri – we would do well to remember his own wise words, which were actually written for another towering progressive, maverick politician Mian Iftikharuddin, but might just as well apply to Sibte: “The primary noun of a conformist society is a tiny three-letter word ‘yes’. This word conceals even greater efficacy than the Open Sesame of Ali Baba. People who know the art of saying yes, all the doors of worldly and Heavenly blessings open for them. Power invites them sit in its lap. Authority kisses their feet. Rulers and nobles feel pride in their friendship. The religious scholars become their guardian saints. Their worst crime is deemed free of the inquiry of the law and their every bad is recognized as good.
But every conformist society also consists of such mavericks who have always refused to call evil as good and were punished. Socrates said ‘no’ and in lieu of this crime, he had to drink a cup of poison. Christ said ‘no’ and was crucified. Abu Zar Ghaffari said ‘no’ and laid down his life painfully in the desert of Nejd. Imam Hussain said ‘no’ and was martyred. Imam Abu Hanifa said ‘no’ and died in jail after being imprisoned for twelve years. Bruno and Jan Hus said ‘no’ and were burnt. Thomas More said ‘no’ and was murdered. Sarmad said ‘no’ and had himself beheaded. The beauty of the faith-incarnate Tahira Quratulain said ‘no’ and was killed. Karl Marx said ‘no’ and starved all his life in exile. Sardar Bhagat Singh said ‘no’ and was awarded the hangman’s noose. Julius Fucik and Gabriel Peri said ‘no’ and were executed. Hassan Nasir said ‘no’ and sacrificed himself in the Lahore Fort with such glory that neither did a funeral occur anywhere nor a tomb was built somewhere. President Allende of Chile said ‘no’ and sacrificed his life for democratic values. These are those fortunate individuals who achieved fame and eternal life but there are also thousands and millions of such martyrs of love who refused to obey evil but departed unknown from the world.”
Raza Naeem is an academic and translator based in Lahore. The translations from the Urdu are his own
Raza Naeem is a Pakistani social scientist, book critic and award-winning translator and dramatic reader based in Lahore, where he is also the president of the Progressive Writers Association. He is currently working on a book, Sahir Ludhianvi’s Lahore, Lahore’s Sahir Ludhianvi, forthcoming in 2022. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter: @raza_naeem1979