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Hali’s Musaddas: themes and tensions within

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By Yasir Kiyani

Altaf Hussain Hali
Altaf Hussain Hali

Christopher Shackle and Javed Majeed have put forth a marvelous translation and critical interpretation of the context and themes of Hali’s Musaddas. Hali aimed to describe “the flow and ebbof Islam” and the story of a community which is alluded to as being asleep on a boat, lost in profound slumber, heedless of the storm to come and the catastrophe which is imminent.

Yasir Kiyani
Yasir Kiyani

“Their condition is similar to that of wild beasts, for they are content in whatever state they find themselves.” Such is the state of the Muslims of Hali’s time, “They feel neither hatred from degradation nor desire for honor. They are neither fearful of hell, nor eager for paradise. They have not made any use of intelligence and faith. They have brought discredit upon the true religion.”


Dostoevsky, who also wrote in critique of his contemporary society, termed this condition as “conscious inertia”. As Iqbal would later advocate, having himself been influenced in part by Hali, that this enervated state is to blame for the general decline in relations between men and that the goal of religion was to create the forward-thrusting consciousness which is embodied in Khalifa, God’s-vice-gerent on Earth, who in a very Nietzschean fashion is capable of possessing a “will to power” which can lead one toward Godliness, towards trying to achieve Heaven on Earth.

Musaddas is addressed to an imagined community of Muslims in South Asia, whom Hali variously criticizes. A prominent theme present in Hali’s work is anti-hedonism. Wine, drinking, and intoxication are signs of the decadence of contemporary Muslims and the kind of base pleasure-seeking he wishes to purge out of literary convention. Hali criticizes the younger generation of aristocrats whom he considers good-for nothings who hate learning, scoundrels who romance and engage in shameless vulgar abuse. He urges them to stop being useless. Their indolence is contrasted with the imagined Perfect Man who follows a Prophetic ethic, those who “never sleep their fill, are never sated by hard work.” This is the ideal.

A significant moment in the story of the downfall of Islam, to Hali, occurs in India. One thing that became evident as one reads through his work is that Arab Islam is still more authentic for Hali. “The religion was changed when it came to India” he bemoans. The polytheism and superstition, or “idle fancy” of Indians finally infiltrated Islam and infected it with the kind of idolatry which epitomizes the fullness and irony of the fall of a most iconoclastic community of believers. It is in India that the monotheism of Islam finally suffers its hardest blows, and it is in contrast to this that Hali lauds the glory of the early history of Arab Islam. “That upon which Islam had always prided itself, even that treasure was finally thrown away by the Muslims.”

The Musaddas possesses a very apocalyptic feel. It often seems, through Hali’s choice of metaphor that he believes in the possibility of Heaven and Hell on earth. Nations face their demise throughout history and to Hali, the present moment stands like a house of mirrors for the Muslims. But, it could potentially, and it was at one point, a garden. The Garden of Eden, We are reminded of the beautiful gardens of the Abbasid caliphate. Hali himself might perhaps have walked through Mughal gardens like Shalamar in Lahore while at the same time his work evokes the imaginary landscapes of Arabia with its “symbolic weaving of desert and garden”. Shackle suggests that “both can be seen to represent the two major strands of Islam, namely, the now increasing central strand of Arab Islam, and the soon to be marginalized Persianate heritage of Mughal India.” This Heaven on Earth analogy seems to produce a civilizational competitiveness in terms of Technological achievement as well as when the early glory of Muslims is juxtaposed with contemporary imperial British progress, the latter of which seems to emanate from the sort of Protestant

Work Ethic Max Weber speaks of. The early Muslims’ search for knowledge, desire for learning, and subsequent uncovering of the Greek texts is contrasted with the decadence of the later empires, the impropriety of the literature they patronized and the increasingly idolatrous religious practice and belief of the Muslim community.

Shackle points out Hali’s ambivalent attempt to “distance himself from the ornate legacy of Indian Persianate Islam”. Hence the recurring conflict between desiring the pristine Arab paradise on Earth of the early Muslim Caliphate societies while denigrating Indian Islam, or Persian influences.

Hali discusses the lack of propriety in Urdu literary etiquette and even reserves a segment of the Musaddas to Our Poets. “The filthy archive of poetry and odes, more foul than a cesspool in its putridity, by which the earth is convulsed as if by an earthquake, and which makes the angels blush in heaven.” Much of the vulgarity in Persianate literature Hali is referring to includes writings deemed by British authorities as being obscene due to their homoeroticism, as with many ghazals portraying the relationship between Sultan Mahmud and his servant Ayaz. So it seems that Hali supported the British sense of Victorian propriety, shame, unnaturalness and advocated repression. Artistic works, he believed, should not be associated with courtesans and taverns.

In fact, Hali, like Sir Sayyid by whom he was influenced, came to believe in the blessings of British rule. He accepted their patronage and idealized their progress. It was interesting to note that although Hali does appear to be a both a loyalist and an Arabo-phile, unlike Wahhabi movements or modern-day puritans, he did not seem to adopt the “take the technology, but oppose the Westernism” approach.

Indeed he criticizes those who advocate that Muslims ought to behave or live in a manner which differentiates or starkly opposes them from their enemies, those who claim that “The mark of the real spirit of the True Faith is simply this: ‘Think of everything in the opposite way to your opponent. Think whatever he calls night as day.” Thus, Hali is mocking theologians who insist that believers should not resemble their enemies in manner since “Your sins are the same as the obedience of others.” These kinds of statements foster the sort of divisiveness and bigotry amongst the people which Hali ultimately believed to be a main cause of the decline of Muslims. Similarly, Hali criticizes “those who claim knowledge”, the fake fakirs and pirs who claimed to be holy. “They take great pride merely in the fact that their ancestors were the favorites of God.” As with contemporary theologians “If someone goes to ask them about a problem, he will come away with a heavy burden laid upon him.” These imposters are opposed to the justice-loving Caliphs on whom he writes, “The entire Qur’an is witness to their mildness. The Prophet himself proclaims, ‘Religion is easy.” This is the primary tension I keep finding in Hali- on the one hand this cry for moderation, and on the other a kind of fanaticism. And yet he himself criticizes the extremists or Orthopraxists as well when he sardonically claims that he finds it suffocating to be in their company, and that it is a necessary condition for one who would feel welcome in their community that he “should have the nishan-e-sajda (mark of prostrating) clearly visible upon his forehead, that there should be no shortcoming in his observance of the Law, That his moustaches should not be too long, nor his beard curled back nor his trousers be cut beyond their proper length.”

On the one hand he himself seeks to create an epistemological break or distance between Arab Islam and Indian Islam, especially due to the vulgarizing Persianate influences, while at the same time he deplores the lack of unity and bigotry that he sees as being the root reason for the decline of the community. “When there is no love between Sunni and Shi’a, no sense of community between Numani and Shafi’i, No abatement of the hatred between Wahhabi and Sufi, and when the Traditionalist curses his opponent, There is such civil war being waged by the People of the Qibla that the whole world laughs at God’s religion.”

Ultimately, Hali’s apocalyptic vision and the statements directed towards the Muslims of South Asia draws out his own judgments and the sense of darkness and Jahiliya which he saw as being the present condition of the community of Muslims, like a house of mirrors, where they can step in and see themselves.

The Qur’an is replete with stories of the rise and fall of nations and the punishments they faced for their collective sins. In his conclusions, Hali as well stresses the fact that all nations eventually perish and that they are ultimately judged and that it is up to each people to decide how the story of their decline will be written, and the consequences they are facing for their actions in this world and the next.

 (The writer is Advocate of High Courts of Pakistan and doing his thesis of LLM from Punjab University Law College and has compiled & translated the book “MOMINA”.  He can be reached at: [email protected])

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