Filling a vacuum

Wnen I went to call on Safina Siddiqi on her eturn from South Africa where she had gone to eceive UNEP’s Global 500 Roll of Honour award on the World Environment Day, she was not home.Her house-help who has been with the family for over 20 years duly informed me that she was somewhere in the neighbourhood. I set out to hunt for her, being familiar as I was with her favourite haunts. Within five minutes I had located Safina. There she was at the roadside supervising the planting of saplings. Her hands were full of soil, for she considers her supervision incomplete if she does not show her personal involvement in the work by joining the gardeners in their task.

Safina-11-07-1995-1When I went to call on Safina Siddiqi on her return from South Africa where she had gone to receive UNEP’s Global 500 Roll of Honour award on the World Environment Day, she was not home. Her house-help who has been with the family for over 20 years duly informed me that she was somewhere in the neighbourhood. I set out to hunt for her, being familiar as I was with her favourite haunts. Within five minutes I had located Safina. There she was at the roadside supervising the planting of saplings. Her hands were full of soil, for she considers her supervision incomplete if she does not show her personal involvement in the work by joining the gardeners in their task.

That did not surprise me. For that is how I have always found Safina — down-to-earth, unassuming with no airs about her and always ready to pitch in when help is needed. No sooner had I asked her how she was, that her eyes lit up and she went on to give me the details of how she had planted sixty-two saplings further down the road before she left for Pretoria. “Nine of them had died by the time. I returned,” she remarked ruefully. In the next breath she added, “I have now replaced them, so hopefully they will be fine.”

“Tell me something about your trip and the ceremony,” I said trying to get her to talk about herself and not just the plants and her work with which she identifies herself totally. Again her eyes lit up. “It was really thrilling,” she enthused. “You should see South Africa’s parks, they are so beautiful, so huge and so well-kept but with their natural environs intact,” she went on. •

Here was a woman who had received the United Nations Environment Programme’s prestigious award a few days earlier. She was obviously pleased with the honour. But all she wanted to talk about was the planting of trees, repairing of sewers and fixing of roads. To get her to tell me something about the occasion which focused attention on her seemed impossible. With a lot of prodding and questioning I finally managed to get her round to describing it all. She had received the loudest applause. “May be because I was the oldest recipient among the 25 award-winners who were present,” she told me modestly — Safina is nearing 64. Quickly she went on to add that she did not deserve the award singly. “There are so many people who have worked with me and I feel I owe this honour to them. Something more, I can’t describe the thrill and pride I felt when I saw Pakistan’s flag at the venue of the award ceremony,” she said.

Safina-11-07-1995-3It seems that not everyone in Pakistan feels that way. President Nelson Mandela found the time to make a brief scheduled appearance at the gathering to congratulate the award-winners and make an inspiring speech in which he spoke of being a member of the “planetary human family” and the need to preserve the environment. But no one from the Pakistan embassy in Pretoria bothered to turn up. Safina is the second Pakistani (journalist Nafisa Shah being the first) to have won this award which was instituted in 1987 to highlight the work of environment workers. She has emerged as a community leader showing the residents in her neighbourhood the way to operate as a pressure group to obtain from the civic agencies basic facilities like roads, sanitation and drinking water which are the rights of any citizen. In addition, she has also sought to mobilise the residents to work on a self help basis in areas which are not too capital intensive such as tree plantation, maintaining parks, keeping street lights functional and garbage collection. The Karachi Administration Women’s Welfare Society which Safina founded seven years ago has helped transform the area in which it is working. Not that the neighbourhood is an epitome of cleanliness and perfect roads. It is a middle class locality and problems are there in plenty. But without Safina’s driving spirit it would have been immensely worse, as the “before” and “after” pictures which she has methodically fixed in her album testify to.

And yet only 16 years ago, Safina had had limited exposure to the professional world outside. She was a simple housewife running her home for her journalist husband, Zuhair Siddiqi, and the two daughters living with them, the son having taken up a job in America. The sparks of the undaunting courage and initiative which have brought her where she is today were always present in her. Thus not many housewives study at home and appear privately for examinations to get a B.A. degree as Safina did when her own children were in school. She, however, never ventured to take up a job apart from a stint of voluntary social work she did for an institution for the handicapped in Lahore.

And then came the turning point. Her husband was killed in a car accident in Islamabad in 1979 and the sheltered life Safina had been accustomed to came crashing down. Although her son proved to be a great support, she had to find a focus in her life and find something to do to keep herself busy. She turned to what came so naturally to her — her culinary skills. She started conducting cooking classes at home. But after some time she felt her methodology must more scientific. “How could I teach a person to bake a cake or make jam without knowing the nutritional values of the various ingredients. I also had to have an understanding of the scientific principles involved in cooking and preserving food,” she observes. That prompted her to take up courses at the Rangoonwala Community Centre and the Pakistan Hotel Management Institute.

That was Safina. She had to approach whatever she was doing correctly and in proper style. When she moved to her own house in the Karachi Administration Society, there was no time for the cooking classes. Living conditions in the locality were in a terrible state. No paved roads, no garbage collection, no road lights and overflowing sewers. At first she attempted to approach the authorities to get them to set things right. But she soon discovered that a lone voice — and that too a female one — carried no weight in the corridors of power.

It was then that Safina set out to organise a women’s group. Since then there has been no turning back. Initially she worked on the agencies to get the roads built. Then came street lights, trees, a garbage collection system of sorts where none had existed, five parks, the cementing of the storm water drain which had been no more than a kachcha nullah , repairing of sewerage lines and much more.

As had happened with her cooking classes, Safina was not satisfied with simply getting the finished product. She wanted to understand the processes that went into the working of the system. “I felt I had to familiarise myself with the structure and functioning of the different agencies to get the work done. I had to operate within the existing framework or try to change it if possible.” she says.

She adopted a holistic approach. Thus getting the municipality to set up the parks on the plots earmarked for them and planting the trees meant that she had to look into the water supply system as well. Working with women also required her to address problems like the crime situation, insanitation and contamination of water lines in the area. That brought her face to face with issues of membership of housing societies for she soon discovered much to her chagrin that obsolete laws gave the residents and plot-holders who were not original allottees no membership rights and as such no say in the administration of a housing society. In her own way she has become quite an expert on the workings of the civic agencies. She has put her knowledge to practical use by challenging them in cases where she has unearthed illegal allotment of amenity plots and other unlawful activities and even managed to get them revoked. Safina’s ultimate test came in 1992 when she filed a human rights case in the Supreme Court to obtain clean drinking water for the residents of her locality. Armed with photographs and laboratory test reports of water samples she got residents to collect, she convinced the court that the leaking water mains and sewers were contaminating the water supply and thus posed a health hazard. The court ordered the concerned agency to change the pipes “There is much more to be done,” says Safina. “Since the Supreme Court bench dealing with such cases now sits only in Islamabad, it makes it difficult for me to seek legal redress,” she adds.

But she has made legal history for this was the first case of its kind in Pakistan. Similarly her effort to make the Sindh Cooperative Societies’ Act effective so that all plot-owners enjoy membership rights has yet to make a breakthrough.

What sets Safina apart from the innumerable NGOs working in the field of environment? Her goals are the same, namely, to improve the surroundings and thus better the quality of life of the people. For that she also believes that public awareness is essential to enlist the participation and cooperation of the people. This awareness has been created but involvement is lacking. Hence unlike most others she works at the grassroots level, not afraid of soiling her hands. Rather than sitting in airconditioned offices churning out jargon-filled and cliche-ridden reports and programmes, Safina actually goes out in the field and works to set an example for others. You can see her in the company of gardeners and sanitary workers motivating them to complete a task. If something illegal is happening, say an encroachment is taking place, Safina makes her physical presence felt in an attempt to stop it, while she approaches the concerned authorities.

When Safina first got involved in this kind of work she would strive more to bring public pressure to bear against the civic agency to resolve a problem. But gradually she has discovered that this does not always succeed because financial constraints are numerous and administrative hurdles prevent something from being done. Hence she has started mobilising the residents to undertake projects themselves on a self-help basis where possible.

Thus of the five parks she managed to get fenced before encroachments swallowed them up, one has been reserved for women. Safina has concentrated all her energy and resources on its development to demonstrate what can be achieved by the people themselves if they are motivated enough. Spread over 1900 square yards of land which was previously a sewage pond, the women’s park is lush green and well-looked after. The KMC has employed a maali for the park but the supervision and maintenance comes from Safina and her other colleagues. They not only keep an eye on the gardener’s work but take it upon themselves to buy plants and seeds and get the water pump repaired when it goes out of order so that the park does not go dry. Small wonder the park draws crowds of women and children, especially on days the city is in the grip of tension.

She now has a full understanding of where group pressure on the civic agencies is needed, where media exposure is necessary and where legal action is called for. “My immediate goal is to revive public interest litigation to help citizens obtain their civic rights. After all potable water, sanitation, public parks and clean air are the basic rights of the people. I hope to win these rights through the courts.

“But I must stress that we need public involvement as well. Environment awareness is not enough by itself. It must be followed by action, which unfortunately is not forthcoming in most cases. Public participation can come through mohalla committees which people in every neighbourhood of Karachi should set up. These committees should have in their folds public spirited men and women who are willing to work to obtain clean water, sanitation, tree plantation and security. We are willing to share our experience with them,” Safina says.

She also hopes to develop the four parks in her Society which are at present no more than vacant plots with a fence round them. Additionally she is trying to devise a door to-door garbage collection system in her Society in the near future with the cooperation of the residents. “I am confident that this can be done especially now that sufficient awareness has been created and people themselves want it. They approach me for advice and help and are also willing to pay for some of the services,” she says.

To mobilise and lead women for their own uplift comes very naturally to Safina. She went for a year to Murree to get her house built on the land that she had inherited from her father. Within no time she had mobilised the women in the neighbouring village to set up a vocational centre, obtain clean water and open a dispensary.

And yet Safina is working against heavy odds. She realises it. “The major problem is that the community feeling which was such a source of strength to the people in yesteryear has broken down all over the country. Pakistanis have become more individualistic and more selfish in the process. They do not want to share anything — be it their wealth, their knowledge, their time, or their effort. Money and upward mobility has destroyed their collective spirit,” Safina observes sadly.

“Not that they are not concerned at the garbage littered around or the shortage of potable water. They are quite articulate about their concerns. But most of them are not at all prepared to take collective action by getting involved in common corrective measures. Thus they do not want to join hands to demand water. Instead they will go and buy bowsers for themselves. If there is crime in their locality, they do not opt for a neighbourhood security system. They will hire an armed guard. If their own garden is clean they will not do anything to get the garbage dump outside their home cleared. Of course there are some people who are an exception and I derive a lot of support from them, but their number is not substantial enough to make a wide impact,” she adds.

“You will be surprised that the worst are the so-called educated people, especially the professionals, who can and should be doing the most. But no lawyer from our neighbourhood offered us his services when we went to court although we have so many lawyers living in this locality. None of the doctors who lives here has taken any interest in the sanitation work we are involved in. Even the religious leaders do not want to take up the cause of the environment. They never talk about issues such as planting trees or keeping one’s neighbourhood clean in their khutbas and dars. Probably they consider such matters as too mundane. But when we planted trees around the mosque the pesh imam was delighted — could he not have undertaken this job himself with the help of his congregation?” Safina asks. The public approach and behaviour very often leave her in despair.
Source: Dawn

An unemotional look at Edhi

By Zubeida Mustafa

ABDUS SATTAR EDHI has been in the news ever since television brought him into the limelight with a programme on him in 1988. Pictures of him standing on the roadside to collect alms (bheek, to use his own word) are quite familiar to newspaper readers Unfortunately, the maulana (as he is fondly called because of his shaggy beard) was forced to leave the country recently when he felt threatened.His statements accusing unnamed agencies of trying to eliminate him politicised him, which is not something good for his work. One only hopes the row will blow over.

By Zubeida Mustafa

Edhi-13-01-1995-1ABDUS SATTAR EDHI has been in the news ever since television brought him into the limelight with a programme on him in 1988. Pictures of him standing on the roadside to collect alms (bheek, to use his own word) are quite familiar to newspaper readers Unfortunately, the maulana (as he is fondly called because of his shaggy beard) was forced to leave the country recently when he felt threatened.His statements accusing unnamed agencies of trying to eliminate him politicised him, which is not something good for his work. One only hopes the row will blow over.

The fact is no one has ever questioned this old man’s love for the poor. His work for the destitute has not only brought him recognition and laurels (including the coveted Ramon Magsaysay award). It has also won for him the confidence of the people. The faith the public has reposed in him is central to his work. For Edhi’s huge network of welfare organisations depends entirely on. voluntary donations. One observer estimates it to be worth over Rs two billion. According to the same calculation, the maulana needs another 210 million to invest and bring returns to meet his day-to-day expenses. But he has other ambitions too. He wants to set up a chain of welfare centres 25 kilometres apart all over the country.

For a semi-literate person with hardly any political or social clout to mobilise massive amounts through voluntary donations, at times by simply standing on the roadside collection box in hand, is something remarkable. More so because the donations come from a society so notorious as ours for tax evasion. It is difficult to believe that people who go to all extremes to cheat the government can be so generous when it comes to giving donations for a charitable cause. But the army of beggars which subsists on public philanthropy, the langars set up outside mazaars and other congregation spots to feed the poor, and the scores of appeals for assistance (which are presumably answered) from organizations working for public welfare are testimony to the generosity of the Pakistanis.

It goes to Edhi’s credit that he has managed to tap this source of funds. The seeming ease with which he collects voluntary donations from the public should put to shame any Finance Minister struggling to raise revenues and reduce the budget deficit. All the more so if it is recalled that many of the big donors are also the tax evaders. Why this paradox? Of course, in absolute terms the amount raised for charity cannot compare with the billions the administration collects in taxes and duties. But what is really significant is that the donations are all voluntary. Unlike the tax-collecting machinery of the state, Edhi has no army of tax collectors with coercive powers to generate funds.

Obviously the people are prepared to pay if they are convinced that their money will be put to good use. Nobody wants to finance corruption and ineptitude, which have reached monumental proportions in the public sector and have disenchanted the people. After all, who wants to pay road tax to fill the coffers of the contractors and their accomplices in the municipal bodies while roads lie in a state of disrepair? The idea of paying bills for telephones which do not work and for water which you do not get in your pipeline is not very attractive. But the same person is happy to send in huge amounts to Edhi and expect nothing in return, at times not even a receipt. Why? Because he feels reassured that his money will benefit the needy. The general absence of a sense of responsibility and community spirit notwithstanding, people are mindful of their social and religious duty to help the poor. Whether they are prompted by superstition (to ward off the evil eye) or the fear of the hereafter (wash off their sins), Pakistanis are generous in giving charity. They will cheat, they will rob but they will donate for a cause.

What better outlet can there be for giving charity than an organisation that works. And Edhi is, after all, producing results. His ubiquitous ambulances which appear in no time wherever there is an emergency, his welfare centres linked by wireless, shelters for the homeless, institutions for the handicappedare living testimony to the judicious use of public donations.

Furthermore, the muidanu has been prudent enough not to erect grandiose structures which are seen as a monumental waste of good money by donors. The centres where the ambulances are parked are an embodiment of simplicity. Its capacity to perform and produce results is the Edhi Foundation’s secret of success. Coming from the Bantwa Memon community, Edhi from early childhood could boast of inherent financial skills. Though ostracised by his community for extending his horizons beyond the confines of his people, the maulana did not reject its unorthodox and down to earth management methods. He keeps a strict and personalised control over his staff, and his accounts. For instance, he unseals all the donation boxes himself every month, personally -counting the cash people have dropped in them. He says he has his own method of detecting any fraud his staff migh have indulged in. If any ambulance is misused, he knows for he has a fairly good idea of how much fuel it will consume for a trip. Small wonder there are no computers in his office (a Pakistani expatriate in America has now offered him one). His records are kept in a primitive style and modern methods of accounting and book keeping are generally not visible.

He claims that he gets his accounts audited but refuses to disclose them to anyone. He nonchalantly declares that he preferred to keep out of this dhanda (racket) of preparing reports and statement of accounts. “People can see what I am doing with their money. Dena hai to do, nahin dena hai to mat do (If you want to give, donate, if you don’t want to then don’t),”he says. But he is punctilious about issuing receipts for the cash received and also has a system of double checking. A donor is issued two copies of the receipt with a self- addressed, stamped envelope with the request to post one of them to the head office. Each donation thus comes in the muukmu’s knowledge. Given his performance, it is strange why the maulana has so far not taken any step to institutionalise his working. True, most organisations collecting public donations do not disclose their budget. This was confirmed by random phone calls to a number of big names in the field. The two organizations which were found to be most transparent were the Layton- Rahmatullah Benevolent Trust which runs a number of eye hospitals for the poor and the Society for the Patients of Urology and Transplantation, Civil Hospital, Karachi.

They prepare an annual report and a statement of account every year which any one can see on demand. But many others are not so forthcoming. Requests for a statement of account from the Fatimid Foundation which is running a blood bank and helps children with thalaessemia produced a surprised response. “No one had made such a request before,” I was informed. Maulana Edhi rejects the concept of transparency in his financial transactions. Under the law of the land, he is not even obliged to disclose his accounts, since his Foundation is registered as a trust and the deed does not require him to do so.

Source: DAWN 13 January 1995

The courage behind the laughter

By Zubeida Mustafa

It was November 1956. The Suez crisis had thrown the Middle East in a turmoil. A summit of the Muslim members of the Baghdad Pact was being held in the Iraqi capital. The visiting leaders had been invited to dinner by Pakistan’s ambassador, Mr Shuaib Qureshi.

Suddenly word came that Shah Faisal of Iraq had expressed the desire to accompany President Iskander Mirza to the dinner. In those days of yore, the Iraqi monarchs did not as a matter of royal protocol go to embassy parties. Hence this was an honor for Pakistan.

By Zubeida Mustafa
The Pakistan Institute of International Affairs is one of the oldest research institutions in the country. In the 1970s, which were years of change for the institute, Khalida Qureshi’s steady presence and devoted and meticulous work gave continuity and stability to this organisation which she served for over two decades. As the Director of Research, hers was the key role in keeping PIIA’s research tradition alive at the leanest period in its history.

It was November 1956. The Suez crisis had thrown the Middle East in a turmoil. A summit of the Muslim members of the Baghdad Pact was being held in the Iraqi capital. The visiting leaders had been invited to dinner by Pakistan’s ambassador, Mr Shuaib Qureshi.

Suddenly word came that Shah Faisal of Iraq had expressed the desire to accompany President Iskander Mirza to the dinner. In those days of yore, the Iraqi monarchs did not as a matter of royal protocol go to embassy parties. Hence this was an honor for Pakistan.


A wave of excitement ran through the mission. The hostess was Khalida Qureshi, the ambassador’s daughter, who deputed for her late mother. She was very young at the time. But what she lacked in experience she made up in charm and hospitality. In the short time available she managed to have everything set for the royal guests.

But in her nervousness and eagerness to have everything in perfect order, Khalida forgot to mind her step when she went to receive King Faisal. It was only later when the photographs came in that she discovered to her great horror that it was she who was occupying the place of honour in the middle of the red carpet that had specially been laid for the monarch’s reception. The royal visitor had, been edged off the carpet. Years later, this was an incident Khalida would recount with good humour. There were many more such faux pas in her repertoire of lively anecdotes that made her such an excellent conservationist. One never tired of listening to her. She possessed the art of converting the most embarrassing of situations into an occasion for laughing at herself.

Then there was the story of the broken shoe. At a formal diplomatic party thrown by the British ambassador in Baghdad, Khalida felt the heel of her Cindrella-like shoe come off no sooner than she had entered. As she struggled to discreetly kick away the offending object,* the host noticed her predicament and came to her rescue.

The shoe was promptly dispatched for repairs and brought back on a silver salver.
But there was something more in the anecdotes that Khalida had to tell: her inborn sense of humour. It was this quality that made her the life of every gathering. It also made her a lovable person who put others at ease, for the jokes at her own expense conveyed the message, “I am after all human and not infallible.”

I first met her at the Karachi University after we were admitted in the International Relations department. She was well-travelled and as the hostess of the parties thrown by her ambassador father Khalida had had many interesting encounters with people whose names now figure in contemporary history. She spoke about her experiences with natural ease making them interesting and entertaining. I learnt infinitely more from these discourses than from the theoretical text of the books on diplomacy. Khalida’s light-heated demeanor could be quite deceptive though. One had to know her better to detect the rock-like courage and seriousness of purpose which lay beneath her jovial exterior. They kept her going through adversity, inspiring others who met her.

For hers was not quite the life a young and intelligent girl from an upper class family of high repute (her maternal grandfather was the great freedom fighter Maulana Mohammad Ali Jauhar whose fiery spirit of independence she inherited) is called upon to lead. She gave up her studies when her mother fell ill (and later died). This was the most challenging period of her life and given her youth and inexperience, she could have faltered. But she rose to the challenge learning much more than young women of her age were required to know as she strove to be a mother to her younger sisters and play the perfect hostess at the embassy parties.

After being mostly in the company of older people for ten years she decided to resume her studies when her father retired and settled in Karachi. Now she was called upon to adjust to the company of girls much younger in age. She did it gracefully and with good cheer. During her travels she had discovered her natural flair for foreign languages. When she went back to the university, she found that she was intrigued by the academic dimension of international affairs.

There was no looking back after that. Her interest in the subject was further stimulated by the research job she took up at the Pakistan Institute of International Affairs where she worked for over 20 years, writing papers and reports. After the death of the founder- Secretary of the Institute, Khwaja Sarwar Hasan, Khalida was increasingly called upon to guide younger scholars and edit the research journal. She did these jobs with untiring devotion until she took final leave ten days before she died on February 23,1983. No one knew how seriously ill she was, surgery and radiotherapy having seemingly brought a remission in her cancer. But insidiously the illness was devouring her liver. She continued to be her kind and con. siderate self, forever concerned about the comfort of those who came to visit her, though all along she was fighting a losing battle against the dreaded disease.

Only once for a fleeting moment she had seemed to despair. When she discovered the lump and was due to go in for surgery she called me up. I went to see her. She would • always declare it time for tea whenever we got together. It reminded us of good old times. That day she was pensive. “I feel like packing that tin trunk we always talk about,” she sadly declared. (She was referring to an old joke we shared of wanting to run away with a trunk full of clothes whenever things seemed to be going drastically wrong in life.)

“The only problem is,” she added after a pause, “my illness will come with me wherever I go. So what good would it do running away?” Thereafter she came to terms with her illness, departing gracefully after due farewells only when her time was up. But she did not have to pack her steel trunk for her final Journey

No ambassador can be greater than his country

By Zubeida Mustafa

It had been a really windy day. The Karachi University campus wore a dusty look. That was not unusual. In those days there were few trees and greenery to shield it from the sprawling sandy wastes where Gulshan-i-Iqbal stands today. When we reached the University we found the tables, chairs and blackboard in the Seminar Room coated with dust which had also drawn wavy patterns on the floor.

We had learnt to ignore the natural elements as the price we had to pay for the spaciousness of the campus. This day was no different until Dr Khurshid Hyder reached the University in time for her class. She was teaching us International Relations. No sooner had she arrived, that every one was acutely made aware of how unacceptable it was for academics to be in unclean surroundings. She went straight for the broom and without much ado began sweeping the room. Of course that stirred every one into action and the students promptly took over the clean-up operation. She had given the lead. Continue reading “No ambassador can be greater than his country”

An unconventional calling

By Zubeida Mustafa

Way back in 1974, when Khushi Kabir first went to Vnandapur, a remote village in Sylhet, to do relief and rehabilitation work for Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee (BRAC), it was a new experience for her.

Previously   her work had been restricted to the village on the outs- kirts of Dhaka. Anandapur took her away from her home and family, Living among the peasants and interacting with them, Khushi developed a new approach to life. She gradually shed off her inhibitions and values imbibed from her middle class background (her father was Joint Secretary in the Ministry of Information in United Pakistan). She was soon to discover the fulfilment of working with the downtrodden.

Continue reading “An unconventional calling”

Slow acceptance of a major breakthrough: Computerised calligraphy

By Zubeida Mustafa

IT IS now eighteen months that computerised Urdu nastaliq calligraphy has been in use in the country but it has yet to produce the impact on Urdu printing it could have been expected to. Only one machine is currently being used in Pakistan to bring out an Urdu daily from Lahore.

Why this delay in response? Not that the inventor, Mr Ahmed Mirza Jamil, has not Continue reading “Slow acceptance of a major breakthrough: Computerised calligraphy”

Memories of a great scholar

By Zuhair Siddiqi, Viewpoint, September, 1977

geust-contDr. Wahid Mirza died in Lahore on September 5.

MOHAMMAD WAHID MIRZA was already in his late seventies, and slowly wearing away, when the country observed the 700th death anniversary of his beau ideal, Amir Khusrau, earlier this year. For nearly forty years, Dr. Mirza had been a distinguished figure in the world of Oriental learning. But outside the limited circle of Orientalists, he was not much known — thanks largely to his own retiring disposition and his inherent dislike of self-projection. During the last year of his life, however, his valuable work on Amir Khusrau brought him much wider recognition among the lay intelligentsia. In their search for authentic material on the fascinating character and amazing achievements of that great savant, writers and journalists inevitably had to turn to Dr.Wahid Mirza’s classic contribution, and many of them acknowledged him as one of the greatest living authorities on the subject. The National Book Foundation published a new edition of his Life and Works of Amir Khusrau, which has held the field as a practically indispensable work of reference ever since it was first published in 1935. And at the request of the Foundation,he produced within a few days, in spite of his old age and failing health, an English translation of Khusrau’s Khazain-ul-Futuh — a short history of the reign of Alauddin Khilji. As wider recognition, and fresh bouquets of tribute came to Dr. Mirza during the last year of his life one was reminded of the touching lines of Robert Blair : Continue reading “Memories of a great scholar”

Obaidullah Sindhi: A fascinating figure

Reviewed by Zuhair Siddiqi

MAULANA OBAIDULLAH SINDHI, HALAAT-1-ZINDGI, Taaleemat, aur siyasi afkaar by Mohammad Sarwar. Fifth edition, Published by Sind Saagar Academy, Lahore. pp. 440; price Rs. 16.00.

geust-contMaulana Obaidullah Sindhi is one of the many fascinating, but now nearly forgotten, figures in the recent cultural and political history of Muslim India. For nearly a third of his life he remained in exile, and when he returned home early in 1939, the political atmosphere was not at all congenial for a man of ideas. No Muslim intellectual who did not carry a Muslim League flag could then expect a patient hearing in his own community. On the other hand, the Maulana’s aversion to Gandhian obscurantism ruled out an active association with the Congress in spite of his general sympathy with its objectives. He continued to preach his religious and political ideas independently, and died in 1944.

Although he was a Punjabi by birth and lived in Sind for many long years, we have read scarcely anything about him in Pakistan except in the writings of his ardent devotee,

Mr. Mohammad Sarwar. The work under review, which appeared in 1943, was first published in Pakistan in 1967. Together with a complement volume entitled Ifadat-o-Malfoozat, it forms a comprehensive study of the life, thought and works of that remarkable man.

Born posthumously in a Sikh family in a Sialkot village, Obaidullah fell under the spell of Islam while still a boy, abandoned his home and family, and embraced the faith of his choice at the hands of a Muslim divine in Sind. At the age of twenty-five, he went for higher religious education to the famous school at Deoband, where he was taught by Maulana Mahmud-ul-Hasan and mastered the traditional Islamic disciplines. After graduation, he returned to Sind, taught for several years, and also established a madrassah where he used to bear the students’ expenses and maintain the teachers. After a few years he went back to Deoband, at the instance of Maulana Mahmud-ul-Hasan, and undertook to organise the old students of the Dar-ul-Uloom. But his mind was too independent to accept the rigid conformism of the Deoband school and he fell out with a section of its ulema, who denounced him as a heretic. He later moved to Delhi and devoted himself to the propagation of his own views on the reconstruction of Muslim society. He took his stand firmly on the Quran and attacked the conventional beliefs and doctrines that he found repugnant to the spirit and essence of the Book.

Advocate of modernism

During the Great War, he was caught in the current of the prevailing pro-Turkish sentiment in Muslim India, and at the instance of Maulana Mahmud-ul-Hasan, went to Kabul to persuade the Afghan ruler to attack the British. He failed, but stayed on in Kabul during the rest of the war years. After the end of the war he became the president of the first branch of the Indian National Congress in Kabul. In 1922, he left Afghanistan for the Soviet Union, where he lived for nearly a year. In the following year he moved to Turkey to witness her rebirth and transformation under Mustafa Kemal. A few years later he went to the Hejaz, where he devoted himself to study and teaching for over a decade.

It was during this long stay in Arabia that Obaidullah embarked upon an exhaustive study of the works of the eminent Muslim thinker and divine of the eighteenth century, Shah Waliullah. He became an ardent follower, and the thoughts and teachings of the Shah dominated his ideas and activities during the rest of his life.

The Maulana did not know any Western language, but he had an open mind and a keen observation, and during his long stay abroad he responded favourably to the currents of radical and revolutionary ideas then sweeping the world around him. He became a strong advocate of socio-economic reform and modernisation in the Muslim world, and pleaded for an ungrudging acceptance of nationalism as a determining factor in its future political organisation.

Federal nationalism

The author has explained Obaidullah Sindhi’s religious and political ideas clearly and concisely, and devoted a whole chapter to the political movement associated with Shah Waliullah. The work is, however, dominated by a reverential spirit which seems to rule out a critical approach. Maulana Obaidullah was as much a hero to Mr. Sarwar as Shah Waliullah was to the Maulana, and neither of them has subjected his hero’s ideas to a really critical examination. The doctrine of wahdat-ul-wujud, as interpreted by the Shah in the eighteenth century, is no doubt noble and sublime; but its utility as a basis for national integration in India was doubtful even at that time, and it had clearly become irrelevant when Maulana Obaidullah sought to preach it two hundred years later.

In spite of his nationalist leanings, Maulana Obaidullah, did not stand for a total national integration in India and envisaged for the Muslims a measure of autonomy far beyond that permissible in a normal federation. This is explained, at least partly, by his aversion to the infiltration of Hindu spiritualism , into Congress politics; in any event, it is significant that the “political manifesto” issued by him as far back as 1924, from Istanbul, envisaged a three-tier system very similar to that proposed under the Cabinet Mission scheme in 1946. Even otherwise, Mr. Sarwar has made it clear that the Maulana’s vision of a free India was not that of an integrated national State; he rather believed in a multinational State based on autonomous linguistic units. It is not clear, however, how he proposed to reconcile the linguistic principle with the claims of Muslim separatism.

Perhaps, the most remarkable aspect of the Maulana’s thought and politics is his ungrudging acceptance of the economic and social consequences of the industrial revolution and his passion for an equitable economic order free from the exploitation of man by man. He urged the Muslims to realize that the industrial revolution and the sweeping social and economic changes that had overtaken the West had not only transformed the methods of production but shaken the very basis of the social and juristic systems under the old order. He wanted the world of Islam to open its eyes and respond to the winds of change rather than continue to coddle itself in revivalist dreams incapable of being realized.

Source: Viewpoint  February 25, 1977




Mian Iftekhar-ud-Din – A man of courage

By Zuhair Siddiqi , Viewpoint, June 11, 1976

geust-contThis article was received too late for inclusion in our issue of June 6, which marked the fourteenth death anniversary of Mian Iftikhar­ud-Din.

On April 18, 1959, a half-educated military dictator, ad­vised and assisted by a clique of underlings, scribes of easy vir­tue, and elevated college passmen, seized the direction and control of the Progressive Papers —the publishers of The Pakis­tan Times, Imroze and Lail-o­-Nahar. A little over three years later—on June 6, 1962—the man who had founded the institution and been its moving spirit for over a decade, died.

Two days earlier, Mian Iftikhar­ud-Din and his political associates had been branded as enemies of the nation in a columnful of editorial gibberish on the front page of The Pakistan Times. When he died, somebody sarcas­tically remarked that that com­bination of political perversity and atrocious English had given the last blow to Mian Sahib’s ailing, lacerated heart.

It was the heyday of Ayub’s despotism, and the mourning for one of its chief victims was, understandably, a muted affair:

Not a drum was heard, not a funeral note—

A crowd of relatives, friends, admirers and old colleagues quietly laid him down in the family graveyard at Baghbanpura. Some dear and near ones cried quietly to themselves. Some newspapers carried perfunctory obituary notices, the most insi­pid ones being those of the news­papers that he had established and nurtured. Continue reading “Mian Iftekhar-ud-Din – A man of courage”

Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan – the end of an era

By Zuhair Siddiqi

guest-contributor“In these dark and threatening times we have to rediscover the vital truths, those great patterns of thought and behaviour, those great moral and spiritual values, the oneness of God and the bro­therhood of man, which are asso­ciated with Islam. Unfortunately, in the course of centuries these central truths are obscured, and rites and rituals, creeds and dog­mas, have covered up the simplicity of the message of Islam. It is the duty of thinkers in each generation to recapture the origi­nal purity and dynamic vigour of the ancient message and re-express it in the idiom of their age”.

Whose voice is this? Not Iq­bal’s. Nor that of any Muslim. It is the voice of Sarvepalli Radha­krishnan, the Indian philosopher and statesman, who passed away last week at the ripe old age of 87. Continue reading “Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan – the end of an era”