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A New Past Nation

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The most prolific and widely read author to write historical fiction in Urdu pertaining to Islam was born in 1914 in a Punjabi village in British India. Named Muhammad Sharif at birth, early in his career he started writing under the name Nasim Hijazi. The pen name means “zephyr from the Hijaz,” referring to the region in the Arabian peninsula where Mecca and Medina are located. He began working as a journalist after earning a bachelor’s degree in history, switching to writing fiction in Urdu soon thereafter. His enormous literary output, produced over nearly half a century, was marked indelibly by the independence of British India in 1947 that led to the creation of India and Pakistan.

Archival footage of refugees arriving in Lahore after the partition of British India in 1947.

Referred to as partition, the breakup of British India is a major event in modern global politics pertaining to Islam. Through the realization of Pakistan, it brought forth an entity based on the ideology that Indian Muslims, living in parts of India where they were a majority, constituted a nation in the modern sense. A state to go with this nation put into motion a massive transfer of minority populations between the two states that replaced British colonial rule. In the chaos that followed the political decision, hundreds of thousands died and millions endured grievous tragedies, such as rape and abductions on a massive scale and decimation of possessions and livelihoods. The severe trauma caused by these events is embedded in the continuing bitter relationship between the governments of India and Pakistan.

While Pakistan has existed in various forms since 1947, the idea that being Muslim in South Asia can be the basis for a national identity in South Asia has proven distinctly unstable in the face of diverse other identities pertaining to language, culture, political orientation, and so on. Amply in evidence in Pakistan’s fractious political, cultural, and religious debates from the beginning, these issues led to the state breaking apart in 1971 when the erstwhile province of East Pakistan became Bangladesh following a violent civil war. In the meantime, the large Muslim minority that has continued to exist in postindependence India has faced systematic discrimination, especially since the rise of the Hindutva movement in the 1980s. Between Bangladesh, India, and Pakistan, the successors of British India contain the largest regional Muslim population in the world today. For the people as well as the states in these countries, the relationship to Islam remains subject to vigorous discussion. Islam’s place in personal, community, and national identity is articulated from any number of differing, sometimes opposing, viewpoints. Cultural and literary production, including historical fiction, has been a major arena to negotiate this identity throughout South Asia.

Displacement and Redemption

Although an event of international scale, the partition of British India was especially consequential for those who lived in regions that fell close to the new boundaries. These were religiously intermixed populations that had little say in decisions that utterly transformed their circumstances.

Life before and after the partition in the Punjab—a region with Hindu, Muslim, and Sikh populations that was bifurcated and saw severe violence—is the subject of one of the earliest successful films to be produced in Pakistan. Released in 1959, Kartar Singh, in Punjabi, was the work of someone who was Muslim and had migrated from the Indian side to Pakistan. Named after a Sikh antagonist who is the film’s most flamboyant character, the film dramatizes the fate of a Punjabi village that would become a part of India.

The film’s first hour shows a multireligious community that subsequently comes to a burning end upon partition. In a scene placed after violence is in full swing, a sorrowful, high-status Hindu asks the village bard to sing, for old time’s sake, verses from Waris Shah (d. 1798), a Muslim poet venerated by Punjabis across religious divisions. The bard refuses and instead he and a woman sing some verses from a famous modern poem by Amrita Pritam (d. 2005).

Pritam was a preeminent Punjabi poet of the twentieth century who was born in Gujranwala and lived in Lahore during partition. As a Sikh, she was forced to move to India as the cities of her birth and residence became a part of Pakistan. Pritam’s poem laments a world now lost, addressing the poet of old:

Amrita Pritam’s poem “Today, I Ask Waris Shah” sung in the Pakistani film Kartar Singh (1959).

Today, I ask Waris Shah, speak from your grave.
Open a different page from the book of love.
Once, when a daughter of Punjab cried,

you poured out a torrent of verses.
Today, hundreds of thousands of daughters are crying,

saying to you, Waris Shah:
Rise, one who writes for sympathy of those in pain,

rise and look at your Punjab.
Today, corpses line the fields,

and blood fills the [river] Chenab.

Today, all have turned [the villain] Qaidu,
thieves of beauty and love.

Where do we find today,
another Waris Shah to come forth?

In the film, Muslims are violently expelled from the village and arrive in the newly created Pakistan after an arduous trek. In a pivotal scene, the main Muslim protagonist takes a fistful of dirt in his hand and swears allegiance to the land that is now the destiny of the surviving community. This leads to a song about the step to be taken after absorbing the sorrow expressed by Pritam.

A group of men and boys then stand in front of a dead male body. A man carrying the flag of Pakistan separates and stands facing the group. The bard who had earlier sung Pritam’s poem joins him, and the two lead the group as it addresses the flag as the representation of the new savior:

Song addressing the new nation’s flag in the Pakistani film Kartar Singh (1959).

Today, your shadow swings over our hearts.

On you is the shadow of our Lord and the Messenger.

Moon, you are a lamp for our hopes.

Take this gift of our first martyr.

The song replicates themes from Pritam’s poem but signals rejuvenation after death. Metonymic to the nation, the flag is under the shadow of God and the Prophet while its own shadow falls on people underneath it. The nation is sacralized, becoming a religiously sanctified intermediary between God and the people. While the song’s wording is triumphalist, the film has a rueful tone, reflecting deep nostalgia for the Punjab lost forever at partition. Good and evil characters do not map to religious identities uniformly. In one way or another, all characters are victims, forced to rebuild lives in a reality that was not the result of choices made by people in places such as Punjab’s villages.

Facade of a mosque in disrepair.

The abandoned Bhagat Sadhna Kasai mosque in Sirhind, India.


Wikimedia, Harvinder Chandigarh, 2016 (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)


A New Past Nation

Inventing an Old Nation

Nasim Hijazi’s first novel, Dastan-i Mujahid (The Holy Fighter’s Story), was published in 1943. In its preface, he offers his work to readers as a bouquet picked from a vast field of flowers, implied to be the Islamic past. The field kept calling him back over the next half century, resulting in seventeen more novels (and a few nonfiction works), all running to hundreds of pages. These works have been published multiple times in Pakistan and India (in both Urdu and Devanagari scripts). They are all still in print and are also now available for free on the internet.

In a 1992 interview quoted in a book full of Hijazi’s praises, he says that, like other authors, he faced significant challenges in his early career. When attempting to publish his first novel, he was told that his subject matter and approach were unsuitable. Well-known publishers would squirm at titles that mentioned holy warriors and say, “What times are you talking about? This is the age of progressive literature and we only publish works by progressive authors” (‘Umar, Nasim Hijazi ki tarikhi navil-nigari, 96).

The attitude Hijazi reports correlates to the fact that he never made an impression in the world of elite Urdu literature. Especially during the first half of the twentieth century, this field was dominated by authors with leftist political sympathies, oriented toward progress that was meant to lead to transformative futures. Such a context had no scope for someone with the aim of lauding dead Islamic heroes in unironic prose. For his part, Hijazi wore the badge of being antiprogressive with great pride. First published in 1958 and reissued many times, his satirical dialogue Saqafat ki talash (The Search for Culture) lampoons antireligious “comrades” who live in fancy places in cities and undertake paternalistic searches for culture among villagers and the poor.

Hijazi lived in the region that became Pakistan during partition. He participated in the movement for creating Pakistan and styled himself an ardent supporter of the new state. However, being cut off from the place of his origins in India after 1947 created a sense of loss and alienation that surfaces often in his work in the form of sentiments expressed by those forced to migrate.

Historical fiction in Urdu that dramatizes Islamic heroes was an established genre by the time Hijazi began to publish. Its origins lie in the mid-nineteenth century as Indian authors who read English began experimenting with new genres. Hijazi was, from the start, attuned to the purpose of informing and energizing his readers to act for what he considered the correct understanding of Islamic identity that had to be derived from the past. This imperative remained ever urgent for him, from before partition to all the decades of Pakistan’s stormy public sphere he observed during the twentieth century.

Hijazi has left behind a significant commentary on his fictional work in the form of prefaces to the novels and interviews and nonfictional works. In these venues, he is forthright about his commitment to Islamic exceptionalism and irredentism, both advocated via stories about imperial formations of the past identified with Islam. His religious particularism, prominent in both fiction and comment on it, is a major reason his work stands apart from that of self-proclaimed progressives who appealed to universalistic principles of economic and political justice meant to lead to emancipatory futures.

For all the triumphalist rhetoric, however, Hijazi’s novels always depict situations in which Muslims with power fail to live up to their potential due to personal failings or betrayal by other Muslims. The general tone of Hijazi’s novels is quite morose and pessimistic. He exhorts to action by laying out ideals that he shows, in great detail, not to have been met by those provided the opportunity to implement them. Holy warriors who proliferate in his novels usually either die terrible deaths or remain beset with regret and suffering even after achieving some form of success.

Righteous struggle in Hijazi’s work pertains to a kind of personal, ethical discipline. True battlefields are always people’s selves rather than places where wars take place. If the past is to be the guide, the ultimate results of going into battle are catastrophe or disappointment. The sole categorical exception to this tale of failure is the early Islamic community under Muhammad and his immediate successors. Hijazi did not fictionalize this context directly, although its echo reverberates throughout his novels.

Hijazi’s novels are rambling affairs, filled with extended descriptions and highly emotional dialogues. They are an easy read, in part because the author never shies from moralizing and explicitly stating his intentions. He provides no indication of his sources, although based on what one reads, the narratives derive from modern historical works (most likely in Urdu and English) on the topics he engages. Citing sources would hold little benefit for his project since the public that was his intended audience would judge the work based on its overall projections rather than caviling about the sources’ nature or details. Those unsympathetic to the endeavor as such were not likely to be persuaded on the basis of appropriate footnotes.

Hijazi saw historical fiction as a way to address the present and the future via narrating the past. But his militaristic titles and stories are not material ready for use by would-be holy warriors seeking to go into battle. Rather, these are ruminating, romanticizing affairs, suited to the cultural atmosphere in Pakistan. His tone matches the dispiriting circumstances the country’s citizens have endured since its creation. The novels’ idealist-pessimist position reflects the society in and for which they were written, although, of course, popular literature always exists in a dialectic with society and is formed by it while also providing rhetorical ballast for ideological currents.

Aerial view of the Faisal Mosque in Islamabad, Pakistan. Greenery surrounds most sides of compound, but the buildings of a city are visible in the bottom left.

Faisal Mosque, Islamabad, Pakistan.


Wikimedia, Usman Ghani, 2008 (CC BY-NC-SA 3.0)


A New Past Nation

The Last Rock

Discussing Islam’s place in Hijazi’s historical fiction is difficult because references to Islam are ubiquitous in his narratives. But one can narrow down on how the past figures in what he considers the correct understanding of Islam. This is a cardinal issue in Hijazi’s work, which I will explore through the novel Akhri Chatan (The Last Rock). Written in the years leading up to 1947, it was published three months after Pakistan was created. Its ostensible subject is a heroic story about some Muslims resisting the Mongol invasion of Central Asia and the Middle East in the first half of the thirteenth century, but the author clearly had his own times in mind. The novel was adapted to a television serial in Pakistan in 1984, at a time when the presiding military ruler was undertaking “Islamization” efforts to shore up his legitimacy. The novel’s ideological value has thus been proven in multiple iterations.

In the preface, Hijazi remarks that when he was writing the novel, it had seemed that what he had read about the Mongols’ cruelty in chronicles was likely an exaggeration. But seeing the fate of Muslims expelled from the villages of eastern Punjab in the wake of partition convinced him that human beings were, in fact, quite capable of committing brutal acts on an unimaginable scale. Although separated by eight centuries, the Mongol invasion and the partition were therefore cognate events for him.

Hijazi’s title for the novel (“the last rock”) is polysemic. It can be understood as referring to the Islamic world that stood in the way as the Mongols expanded their political dominion in a southwestern direction under Genghis Khan. However, in the novel’s narrative, many Muslims are willing to accommodate the Mongols on principle or for personal gain.

The true “last rocks,” then, are characters who embody Islam in an uncompromising way, seeing themselves as agents carrying out divine will in the world. These include the novel’s main protagonist, a man named Tahir b. Yusuf, born an orphan in Baghdad after his father dies fighting for Saladin (Salah ad-Din, d. 1193) in the effort to recapture Jerusalem from the Crusaders. He grows up in Medina but spends his midlife moving between Baghdad, Central Asia, and Mongolia while fighting both the Mongols and Muslim authorities in these regions, whom he regards as cowards and treasonous hypocrites.

Hijazi’s narrative of Tahir’s life interlaces two asynchronous timescales. At one level, he can be seen as Islam itself, brought up in the Hijaz of a parent connected to Jerusalem; matured in places such as Baghdad, Samarkand, and Bukhara; and eventually settled in India, like Nasim Hijazi’s own ancestors. This centuries-long time span runs together with a sped-up time in the form of a normal human life story spread over the first half of the thirteenth century. For the second context, Tahir is enmeshed in dealings with characters such as the Abbasid caliph, the corrupt and ineffective political and intellectual elites in Baghdad, and members of the Khwarazmshahi dynasty, the last Muslim bulwark standing in the way of Mongol takeover of Islamic societies.

Among the last, ‘Ala ad-Din Khwarazmshah (d. 1220) is depicted as a selfish and ineffective ruler who dies after being defeated by the Mongols. His son Jalal ad-Din (d. ca. 1230) is shown to be valiant—a last rock—whom Tahir regards highly and tries to serve. Thwarted as much by other Muslims as the Mongols, Jalal ad-Din eventually disappears from the scene around the time Tahir decides to settle in India.

Islam and History

Hijazi’s novels depict Islam as an utterly this-worldly affair. We never hear of things such as voices coming from the unseen or miraculous powers intervening in human affairs. Since religion is exclusively a matter of human actions, Islam’s meaning must be found in the way Muslims have behaved in the past. This makes history the sole venue from which one can describe Islam and prescribe correct behavior.

History’s significance is emphasized early in Akhri Chatan. The novel’s beginning provides a brief prehistory for Tahir b. Yusuf, the novel’s chief protagonist. Here we learn that his father was born in Medina but journeyed to Jerusalem to join the army of Saladin that was attempting to wrest the city from the Crusaders. While showing great valor in battle, he spent his free time reading books. On one occasion, his Turkish commander mocked him, saying he was acting like the people of Baghdad rather than a soldier. He responded, “The sword is a headstrong horse, for which knowledge is needed as the reins. The people of Baghdad adorn reins but have no horses on which to put them” (18).

As the conversation proceeded, it turned out that Saladin himself was present at the scene, listening from the shadows. Becoming agitated by what was being said, he revealed himself and went on to berate the commander: “I was greatly saddened to hear what you were saying. But you are simply ignorant. Your punishment is that, during any free time in the next six months, you must forsake your companions and devote yourself to reading history. After six months, I will examine you personally. If you satisfy me, you will be promoted. If not, the punishment of solitary study will be extended” (20–21). For a great warrior like Saladin, then, history is a critical part of a righteous Muslim’s arsenal. It must be pursued by all so that they can understand the significance of their actions even in a war.

While Hijazi extols history frequently, this does not pertain to the past in general. What he has in mind are stories of heroic figures of the past with clear implications for the present and future. In the novel, by the time Tahir is a grown man of about twenty-two, the main threat to Islam has shifted from the Crusaders of his father’s age to the Mongols looming in the east. He leaves his home in Medina for Baghdad to fight but discovers that the local people of the great city are still embroiled in bookish debates rather than attending to imminent danger.

Once he has seen more of the world (including a trip to Genghis Khan’s court in Mongolia), he returns to Baghdad and finds the people even more feckless. He is then forced to become a public raconteur of the valuable past:

Pulling the veil from the past, he was pointing to that forgotten place from where the desert-dwellers of Arabia had set out intending to conquer the world. Turning history’s pages, he was relating stories of warriors who had exalted Islam in the east and the west. He was pointing to a storm, hidden behind the future’s curtains, while people listened with bated breath. The eyes of some were damp. A young man could barely control his whimpers. Tahir was saying: “The blackness of ill-luck on the nation’s skirts is washed with blood, not tears. Remember, the way you are living is like playing a joke on nature—and nature never forgives those who mock her” (290).

He is shown especially exasperated by debates about religious particulars since differences of opinion on matters of worship and law create divisions between Muslims. When asked to give his sectarian affiliation, he responds with the following:

For three hundred years, you have been counting types of Muslims and no decision has been made on real and counterfeit, true or false. The reason for this is that you do not measure others on the scale of Islam. Rather, all of you have created your own scales, on which each of you alone measures well.

My dear, it may well be that I cannot think like you because I have little knowledge. I may not be able to fly to high stations on wings of great thought. On the scale you have made for others, I may not measure well, as is likely true of millions of other Muslims. But if you had been riding with me in a battlefield in Khwarazm and had asked me what kind of a Muslim I am, I would have replied that the measure of a believer’s faith is present right in front of us. If I smile under the rain of unbelievers’ arrows, say the profession of faith in the shadow of their swords, if my feet don’t wobble feeling the hand of death next to my jugular vein, then be content: I am a Muslim (291).

Voiced through Tahir, Hijazi’s complaint about Muslim particularities is a common refrain in modern Islamic thought. It reflects a thoroughly sociopolitical understanding of religion in which correct Islam is a matter of belief and action pertaining to communal success against enemies who are always keen to diminish Muslims’ divinely bestowed right to ascendancy. Ritual, theology and philosophy, and psychological interiority are seen as private matters amenable to maximum accommodation. Intellectual effort, in this mode, is directed solely at the outward comportment that materializes Islam in sociopolitical terms.

While concerned mostly with the male domain, Hijazi’s novels do contain women in critical supporting roles. For Tahir’s story, a woman named Safiyya becomes one of his major allies in Baghdad. She protects him during court intrigues and suggests they get married. He declines, citing his duty as a warrior, and she eventually dies as a martyr.

In later exploits, he meets Surayya, a woman who is initially cross-dressed as a warrior while fending for herself and her younger brother. When confronted by Mongol forces, Surayya addresses the men regarding duties incumbent on them especially in relation to women:

Those who are afraid of the Tatars [i.e., the Mongols], I am not prepared to call my brothers. Tell them that a Muslim girl, who has drunk a Muslim mother’s milk, cannot call such cowards her brothers. If they fall short of doing their duty, we will deliver our bangles to them and take up their rusted swords to confront the Tatars. Our love and submission is for the brave, not the fainthearted. If they cannot be the protectors of our honor then they should not expect to stand among God’s preferred at the time of Resurrection.…If they want us to call them brothers pridefully, then they must come before us wearing garments soaked in blood. The faces they show us must have marks of wounds.

Rousing speeches such as this abound in Akhri Chatan and are a mark of sincere Muslims whose internal thoughts and external speech and actions are always shown to coincide. But relatively few Muslims exhibit these qualities sincerely in the author’s terms. In the end, the sole hope in the form of Jalal ad-Din, son of ‘Ala ad-Din Khwarazmshah, fades from the scene. Tahir’s final admonishment of the people of Baghdad anticipates how they will be seen by people in the future::

People irreverent toward life: see this gale and fire as a warning from nature! You may have heard of the destruction of Babylon and Nineveh, but may God not bring the day when travelers of the future see the ruins of the past and say, there was once here a great city named Baghdad. It had two million people. … People of Baghdad, your caliph and nobles have sold away your and your future generations’ honor and independence to the Tatars for the sake of peace that will last a few years (493).

Such admonishments do nothing to change the balance of forces, and the Mongols continue their march. Tahir and Surayya get married and go to India, where he becomes a renowned general in the army of the Delhi Sultanate. He has sons who follow in his footsteps to become soldiers. He eventually retires from the military career and dedicates the rest of his life to the cause of converting people to Islam in India. While successful in this next phase of his life, he cannot forget Baghdad: “In a gathering or public event, whenever he was giving a speech and remembered Baghdad, he would finish quickly and go sit and brood in some corner. Again and again, he would say to himself, ‘Alas, that I had been able to save that city from destruction!’” (518).

The end of Tahir’s story mixes personal success with communal failure. This combination is a persistent feature of Hijazi’s novels and is the ultimate lesson the author seems to transmit from his exploration of the past in fiction. It speaks to the significance of personal uprightness and perseverance in the face of a world that is unlikely to provide adequate success.

Tahir’s story of an Arab living in successful exile in India has parallels to Hijazi’s own life. Closely correlated to Pakistan’s state ideology, his novels succeeded because they created a form of history ready for consumption by Urdu readers in the second half of the twentieth century. Celebrated as a mouthpiece for religious nationalism in Muslim South Asia, Hijazi nevertheless lived exiled from his birthplace that lay only a few miles away, across the formidable border put in place by partition.

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