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A civil servant turned historian

S. M. Ikram’s contribution to history

A civil servant turned historian

Three persons, constituting a trio, are responsible for structuring the paradigm of Pakistani history and according it certain teleology — reading the past history as a process culminating in the creation of Pakistan. Ishtiaq Hussain Qureshi, Sheikh Muhammad Ikram and Khurshid Kamal Aziz are those three historians.

All of them epitomised the juncture where modernity converged into tradition, and as a consequence of that convergence, tradition had to re-invent itself in the light of modernity. More so, they propounded the separatist identity of Indian Muslims quite vehemently.

Thus, these historians were modernist to the hilt despite their profound knowledge in Persian and the historical sources in the same language. Their style and method was Rankean (following what Leopold Von Ranke, a Prussian historian, prescribed) in which fact held primacy. The overall trajectory of the historical sensibility reflected in their writing was linear and descriptive.

Generally speaking, in the era when these historians were pushing their respective pens, the historical narrative that was in vogue across communal boundaries had been descriptive in style and tenor. Same can be said about historians like Ramashankar Tripathy, Beni Prashad, Ishwari Prashad (1888-1986) and Romesh Chandra Majumdar (1888-1990). They too were descriptive and markedly selective in collecting and marshalling of data and historical sources.

Ikram’s magnum opus remained the three- volume intellectual history of Muslims of the subcontinent, Aab-i-Kausar, Rud-i-Kausar, and Mauj-i-Kausar. It is must read for every one interested in history, culture or literature to have a proper intellectual context.

One general observation about the historians from South Asia — particularly those from the 1930s to 1960s — is that their histories steer clear of any tension or criticality. It was simply because they preferred to speak through arranging facts in a particular sequence instead of voicing their own opinion. The conceptual engagement with people drawing different conclusions did not figure at all in their writings. Even Jadunath Sarkar employed the same methodology despite the fact that a communal angle in his history writing was quite conspicuous.

The fundamental point of divergence between the three historians mentioned at the outset and those described later was that of a separatist ideology and nationalism. Through descriptive style, both of them projected different teleologies. Analytical style in writing was the next stage when sources were read in comparative fashion to come up with synthesis. But that theoretical aspect of historiography falls out of the purview of this column.

Therefore, I will shift my focus back on one of the three Pakistani historians, Sheikh Muhammad Ikram, better known as S.M. Ikram. His books are widely read but even his readers of his books know very little about his personality, background and the motivation for becoming a historian and laureate.

He was born on September 10, 1908 to a family of modest background. His parents hailed from Rasulnagr, a town near Wazirabad in Gujranwala district. His father Sheikh Fazal Kareem was a Qanungo, a pre-Mughal hereditary office of revenue and judicial administration. At the time of Ikram’s birth, he was posted at Chak Jhumra in Lyallpur District. His family may not have been wealthy or influential, yet it was adequately engaged and interested in literary pursuits. The family’s proclivity towards literature became manifest when his father wanted to name him after Abdul Qadir, the editor of the first Urdu language magazine, Makhzan (started in 1901). But Ikram’s grandfather Dasaundi Khan shot down that proposal and insisted his grandson should be named after Sheikh Muhammad Ikram, his dear and bosom friend; coincidently, he too was working for Makhzan as the assistant editor.

Ikram was a precocious child which was evidently reflected in his education career. He did his matriculation in 1924 from Government High School Lyallpur. Later on, that school became intermediate College, then Degree College and eventually it was accorded University status in 2002. Ikram passed the Faculty of Arts (F.A.) examination from the same institution in 1926.

It was in Lyallpur that he developed a taste for Persian and poetry which remained a lifelong passion with him. Ghalib and Shibli Naumani were big sources of inspiration for him. Then he moved to Lahore and did bachelors and Masters in English literature from Government College Lahore. After completing the Masters, he sat in Indian Civil Services Examination in 1931 and on selection; he went to Jesus College at Oxford for two years (1931-33).

After coming back to India he served mostly at various places in the Bombay Presidency. Love for Persian literature and poetry accompanied him wherever he was posted.

Finally, the partition happened in 1947 and Ikram opted for Pakistan and took up his official position on September 29, 1947. During the period between 1953-54, he took one year leave and went to Columbia University as a visiting Professor where he underwent a transformation. He not only started taking interest in History but also switched from Urdu to English. He states about his Columbia experience, “In 1953-54, when I undertook a year’s teaching assignment at Columbia University, the need for a book in English, dealing with all aspects of Indo-Muslim history, was forcefully brought home to me. I felt this need particularly with regard to American students who, in the absence of anything better, had to fall back upon Vincent Smith’s Oxford History of India or similar compilations.”

Thus he conceived the project of writing History of Muslim Civilization in India and Pakistan (711-1858 A.D.). That book initially was published in 1962 and subsequently rans into many editions and is still extremely popular among students and scholars. Modern Muslim India and the birth of Pakistan came as a sequel in 1965 and then re-published many times. In fact, this book originally appeared under the title Makers of Pakistan and Modern Muslim India. In its current form, this book had several incarnations.

Despite these important contributions, Ikram’s magnum opus remained the three- volume intellectual history of Muslims of the subcontinent, Aab-i-Kausar, Rud-i-Kausar, and Mauj-i-Kausar. It is must read for every one interested in history, culture or literature to have a proper intellectual context.

Another important contribution of Ikram is the establishment of Idara-i-Saqafat-i-Islamia of which he was the founder director. Of all the contributions that Ikram made for this country in various realms, the creation of this institution was the foremost because, as they say, the institution builder are in fact the nation builders. S.M. Ikram breathed his last on January 17, 1973.

Tahir Kamran

tahir kamran
The author is a historian and teacher based in Lahore.

One comment

  • Dear KAMRAN SB,AOA,thanks for a beautiful article,SMIKRAM was a great historian,I studied his books at college level,history was my subject upto B A.Salam to all in your family. With regards—-BASHIR MALIK.—

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