DAWN Tuesday Review, Aug 27-Sep 2, 1996
Profile: Dr. Mubarak Ali
I was pleasantly surprised. He had decided to start the conversation with a comment on Prof. A. H. Dani’s profile published on these very pages.
"What has disturbed me," he said, "is the statement by Dr Dani about the incident when historians were called by the government of Ayub Khan to write A Short History of Pakistan. Dr Dani has mentioned that I. H. Qureshi wanted to compile a history of the Indian subcontinent, whereas Dr Dani was in favour of writing a history of this region, Pakistan, only. I have no problem with his statement up to this point, but thenhe narrates that he told Ayub Khan, ‘I can write both. You decide!’ This really provoked me because Dani Saheb is a well-known scholar and we respect him. But the way he has put this thing, it is not right… This is a democratic age, and a historian must be free. Unfortunately Dani Saheb seemed to have adjusted his views."
This attack is very much in tradition with the rest of what Dr Mubarabk Ali has said and written over the last many years. His books (nearly forty) are widely read – not for their academic worth, about which he himself says that he does not write for the academicians – but for the new perspectives he gives in them. Usually, he succeeds in shocking his readers. A 120 minute conversation with him was a refreshing experience that I would like to share with the readers in a straightforward manner. Here is a segmented account of what he said, and my occasional insertions (within brackets.)
Writing history without historians:
"Recently, when the National Institute of History and Culture took up the task of publishing history they also approached me. I refused. I said I don’t like to write history under any government. A historian or an intellectual has to sacrifice in order to maintain his integrity. It is his responsibility to be independent, to be objective.
"The whole project, headed by Mr Fakhr Zaman, who is a friend of mine, is very defective. You know, these people do not know how history is written. Because there can be a number of different points of view: nationalist point of view, communalist point of view, Marxist point of view. In India they have different schools such as subaltern school of studies, now they say history from the below, not history from the above. And then the South Eastern have the imperialistic school of thought in history. In France, there is much emphasis on social, cultural history – they call it annals school. They write history of sensibilities or history of mentalities. They say that now history has such a grasp (over) human society that you can even write the history of emotions or the history of tears. So now history has completely changed. It’s no more political history, its no more economic history. The social and cultural history has more scope. It is unfortunate that in Pakistan they don’t have trained historians who can write this type of history.
"I was also one of the members of this National commission of History and Culture. I don’t know how somebody nominated me. My objection was that instead of asking history teachers to write the history it is better to train the historians. It will take five years to ten years but you can train the young generation of historians, inviting historians from different countries – from India, from Britain, from France, from Germany. I know the history departments from Sindh to Peshawar. Their history teachers are no historians. We don’t have any historians particularly for the mediaeval period (Sultanate and Mughal) because historians specializing in that period must know the Persian language to study the original sources. This is the reason why I think the project has no chance of success. But there was Kaneez Yousuf. She wasx the consultant of this commission… I wrote a small article, writing history without historians. Then, as usual, she became very angry and wrote a long article against me. Instead of giving an argument about how to write history or where to get historians she personally attacked the point of view I usually adopt in my history writing.
History writing in the Muslim South Asia over the last hundred years:
"Now some people even say that Shibli was not a historian. Actually Shibli’s problem was that during his period there was a lot of attack on Islam and Islamic history because that was a period when the East India Company became the ruler of India and it was their attempt to discredit everything which belonged to the past. There were a lot of challenges, and attacks, and that is the reason why the attitude of Shibli and Ameer Ali and other historians was apologetic. To defend themselves, rather than to attack. And even sir Syed Ahmed Khan – he went to England to collect material (for writing) Khutbat-e-Ahmedia against Sir William Muir, who had written a book on the life of the Prophet (PBUH). "Only in the later period when the (Indian) intellectuals became a little bit confident did they start to attack the Western historians and writers. That was when nationalism became strong in India and the national historians emerged. (And there were also Muslim nationalist historians who were not apologetic) such as K. M. Ashraf. He was also a very good historian. And Mahdi Hasan, who wrote a very good thesis on the Tughlaq Period. Ishtiaq Hussain Qureshi belongs also to this generation. He had some confidence and defended the Muslim rule in India. His thesis, The Administration of the Delhi Sultanate was excellent. But after the partition he became idea-locked to the Pakistani ideology. And then, as a matter of fact, he came to the belief that the Muslim rule was an ideal rule in India: the welfare state was there and the Muslims very tolerant, and so on. He even went so far as to accuse Akbar for the down fall of the Mughal Empire. Actually this point of view had been there even before him. Somewhere in 1880s there was even a debate at Aligarh University on this topic. And then I. H. Qureshi academically put forward this thesis in his books and writings. No doubt, he was a very good hikstorian who used the original sources but he became very communalistic. A great loss to the history of the mediaeval period.
I would like to relate this incident. I was once looking up A Short History of Pakistan by I. H. Qureshi. The chapter on the Mughals was written by Professor Rasheed. As I was reading his views on Akbar, I found that one paragraph is the same as it is in I. H. Qureshi’s The Muslim Community in the subcontinent, (published a few years before A Short History of Pakistan). So it surprised me because Prof. Rasheed was also a very great scholar. But, of course, my doubt was that Prof. Rasheed took this whole paragraph from that book without naming I. H. Qureshi. In 1992, when they were celebrating the 450th birthday of Akbar in India, I was also invited by Irfan Habib to read a paper… There Irfan Habib informed me that Prof. Rasheed, who was his teacher at Aligarh, had personally told him that the passage was actually inserted by I. H. Qureshi without informing him. I don’t know whether Prof Rasheed challenged him or not, perhaps he also kept silent. But this is quite unprincipled, you know. But I. H. Qureshi put this for propagating his own point of view.
Sir Syed, Iqbal and the revolution:
(Reformation and the revolution are two concepts which are used by the serious historians very carefully, often in contrast to each other. However, in popular writing they sometimes get mixed up. For instance, you may find references to the achievements of Sir Syed Ahmed Khan and Iqbal where these two words are used interchangeably.
Mubarak Ali comments on this: "There was no revolution. Because revolution means radical change – upside down- within a very short span of time. But as a matter of fact after the French Revolution and the Russian Revolution it has become a very respectable word. Everybody is using this word: green revolution occurs in societies where you block all the ways of reform. So, as a matter of fact Sir Syed Ahmed suggested a few things to improve the society but not to revolutionise it.
"Same is the case with Iqbal. He was not a revolutionary poet at all, he was a very reactionary poet. And sometimes his poetry is meaningless: Kafir hai toe shamshir pay karta hai bharosa. Momin hai to baytegh bhi ladta hai sipahi. He tries to appeal to the emotions of the people.
Now some people talk about his lectures. But even those lectures are an attempt to justify religion through science and philosophy. Many people have tried to do this in Islam, in Christianity… this is what Iqbal did, this is what Maudoodi did, more or less, this is what Pervaiz did. And even today so many people are trying to do the same thing.
"So (Iqbal’s lectures) were an attempt to make Islam acceptable to the modern mind. So, you see, he has taken many concepts from the philosophy of the West, which were valid and popular in his own days but are neither valid nor popular today. We have glorified Iqbal too much, otherwise in his own days his impact was perhaps quite limited. Even there, his (early) poetry, Bang-e-Dara, is really very good and appealing but the rest is mere sermonizing… And then there is mere hatred against the West. Hatred is not enough (to create a philosophy). You need to understand the mechanism of the West.
"He was a poet but he didn’t have any political vision. Now, they talk about his Allahabad Address (1930). There is a lot of criticism on that. There is no mention of Bengal at all. That is why some people say this was a greater Punjab plan. And then, in the letters he wrote later to Thompson, he said he had nothing to do with (the idea of) Pakistan."
(Dr Mubarak Ali was associated with the Goethe Institute, Lahore, for quite a while.) "No, I don’t blame the locals (for the trouble). After all, it was only Madiha Gauhar’s group, Ajoka that was against me, whereas others supported me. About 20 or 25 organisations from Lahore protested (against my leaving the Goethe.) I don’t even blame (Madiha’s group) so much – you can’t keep everyone happy if you are working in a public organization. I blame the new director of the Goethe Institute.
"I have even been in Germany for about five years, and yes, I am one of those historians who say that Hitler was a continuation of German history, and not an aberration. This phenomenon you can find in most of the Germans. So this is one thing. Secondly – (and if you write this, I would really like to point out through my own experience) – that I find that these foreign (cultural centers) which are running here, such as the British Council, American Centre, German Cultural Centres… these directors, when the come to Pakistan they are not so arrogant. But slowly and gradually our elite class just besieges these people and spoils them. Within a year, they become a part of the same feudal culture.
"I remember, the previous director was a very good friend of mine and actually he asked me to come and take charge. He was a very friendly person in the beginning. Then I saw him change slowly, the same feudal culture was adopted by him. Actually what happens is that these people usually live in two-room flats in their own countries and work in small cubicles. Here they live like princes. And then they develop a contemptuous attitude towards the people of this country. With the previous director I had relationship of colleagues. Now, (this director) started to tell that he is my boss. I just corrected him: ‘No, you are not my boss, you are just my colleague. We are equals.’ Some other people then intervened (between me and the director). And actually then he asked me to have a mutual agreement and leave the Institute, because they didn’t like to terminate my services to avoid a scandal or the embarrassment of such an action. But even then, when he misbehaved (with) me… some of my friends and colleagues became very angry. They wrote letters to the headquarters of the Goethe Institute, to the ambassadors and some others. And then he told me that the German community in Pakistan would ‘support me, and not you’. And I think that was correct.
"The other thing, all the Pakistani intellectuals, even though they know that he misbehaved (with) me, they are all cooperating with him. Even some of those who (had) supported me. So, you know, we don’t have any character. Our intellectual class, you know, is very bankrupt… So that is the reason I don’t have any relationship with the Pakistani intellectuals except a few…"
What I am doing these days:
"I am still jobless since leaving the Goethe Institute (this interview was conducted in the first week of July 1996). The only offer I have received is from Jawaharlal Nehru University (India) as a visiting professor. I agree it takes time because they also have to take permission from their Home Ministry.
I haven’t got any offer from (within) Pakistan. In fact, the Punjab University flatly said that Mubarak Ali is not acceptable to us…. Because of his views.
"Here (in Lahore) I am trying to open a college of social sciences. It is my dream. Because I believe that only learning natural sciences you can improve your technology. But scientific thinking is created only after reading the social sciences. Without social sciences we cannot solve our problems.
"These days I am more drawn to the social and cultural history. Two of my recent books are Khanay Kay Adab and Niji Zindagi ki Tareekh. Now I have collected some material on the British Raj and I am thinking about it. Because many people here have got this nostalgia for the Raj, they think that the British Raj was better…. So, why people think so? And what was the British Raj at that time? There are so many things but the problem is that alone you can’t do a lot of things. We don’t have institutions. We don’t have research scholars. You don’t get assistants.
"The problem is that sometimes I cannot use the whole source material because it is not available. I try to use whatever is available. I don’t claim I am a perfectionist. So this is not a well researched work. I just try to re-interpret history and to give an understanding to the people of how to read and interpret it later on by themselves.
"There are a number of projects I would like to take up (if given a bunch of impressionable minds). It is my dream to train some historians before I leave this world. It is to continue the tradition. There are very interesting topics (of social and cultural history). Perhaps somebody could write on ‘the concept of honour during the mediaeval period’. Somebody could expound ‘the concept of poverty in history’. And especially in the Indian history, there are a number of betrayals, a number of traitors. Why people betrayed their own society? You can perhaps work out why there have been Ambhi, Jafar, Sadiq? Why? So, there is a lot of scope if we apply some of the thinking of the annals school of thought to our own cultural and social history.
"Even in political history new experiments can be made. For example, the subaltern historians (writing history from the below) could take up those aspects which have been left out by the traditional historians. For instance, the showmaker’s strike at Gorakhput.
"Even to read a text is (a specialized domain and ) very important. When I was in Germany as a research student I was trained in this technique. This is where you can get the material. Suppose if somebody was living in the times of Akbar, suppose you read Badayuni. If you read him carefully then you will find a number of things in his one page. Because these historians (when) they could not write openly (they buried) hidden meanings - sometimes in words, sometimes in similes. Same is the case even with Abul Fazal – Akbar’s court historian. But he was a very clever historian because he revised his Akbarnamah five times. Even there you can find criticism on Akbar. But you have to read (between the lines) to get the hidden meaning. Unfortunately nobody, has done that in Pakistan."
His books (nearly forty) are widely read – not for their academic worth, about which he himself says that he does not write for the academicians – but for the new perspectives he gives in them.