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Contradictions and a historic man

The role of historic men in Muslim South Asia

Contradictions and a historic man

Who is a successful man? Who is a great or historic man? Can a historic man be a successful man as well? Consider:

One way of answering these questions is that a successful man is one who meets the material standards of utility. His priorities are embedded in material and personal concerns and are synchronic in nature and orientation. In a material and worldly sense, the successful man is focused and undivided. A historic man, on the other hand, is born in contradictions. He is either a participant in a historical movement, or he becomes the founder or source of such a movement. His priorities are diachronic and rooted in a desire to make a meaningful contribution to the collective cause. Such a movement is always dialectic, never linear or unilateral.

It is important not confuse a historic person with a reactionary. Hitler, for example, was a reactionary born out of the ascendancy of Jewish literati, communist ideology, and Franco-British imperialism. He may have had a huge impact on his historic moment, but contributed nothing that would compel us to remember him fondly.

A great man cannot evolve in an ideologically unilateral society. A historical moment requires historical crosscurrents at odds with one another. Varied strains converge at the cusp of history. It is at such a point that a historic being is born or made. A historic person goes beyond mere material success. While a successful person in material terms will leave a legacy for his progeny, a historically successful person will leave a legacy for generations of followers.

The history of Muslim South Asia bears witness to how men successful in worldly affairs also left a mark on history, and how divergent historical strains converged to define their role.

The decline of the Mughal empire provided a period of reflection for Muslim India. Poets like Mir Taqi Mir and Mir Dard accorded the pain of such a moment. Shah Waliullah went so far as to invite Ahmad Shah Abdali to invade India, because in his analysis there was no hope for Muslims from within India. He saw a bloody invasion as the only way forward. With the arrival of the British, this analysis led to a synthesis between convergent strains of history. Indigenous Indian, Muslim, Mughal, and British currents of history seemed to be at odds with one another but compelled by the dialectics of history, they converged to create symbols of hope for Indian Muslims in the nineteenth century — Sir Syed Ahmed Khan, Mirza Ghalib and Maulana Shibli. Sir Syed was a modernist. Shibli, initially a follower of Sir Syed’s, was a traditionalist (particularly in historical-cultural sense). This historic moment created these two important historic figures who diverged in their opinion(s) but who both offered hope to Muslim South Asia. Both were successful in terms of creating institutions that had an impact, and continue to have an impact on the Muslim society. Crucially, their contributions were not limited to their immediate surroundings. The dialectical forces of history in their time shaped them. In turn, they had an impact on history.

Ghalib was driven by all the contradictions of a traditional Muslim raised in a pluralistic Mughal Indian ethos and resigned to the ascendancy of British Raj. He experienced all these historical forces, and reconciled them in his person. This is reflected in his poetry and perhaps more plainly in his letters, written in a modern prose style. That is the reason for his overarching greatness.

The same can be said of Muhammad Ali Jinnah and Allama Muhammad Iqbal. Both were products of this period of synthesis. Both were deeply indebted to Europe for their personal growth and success. Both came upon an independence movement at the beginning of the twentieth century that borrowed Western ideological and philosophical constructs to challenge Western hegemony. Both struggled with the various dialectical strands of history in their time. Both were defined by the many contradictions in their surroundings. They were both successful in worldly terms but also concerned with the collective destiny of Muslim India. Both have a legacy embedded in the very existence of Pakistan.

Post-colonial societies are culturally and socially dependent on the (colonial) empire that they broke off from and from which they borrow the nation state system. The transformation from empire to nation state has been inconsistent in many post-colonial societies. This has resulted in political upheavals without yielding a historical movement.

It may be argued that in societies like Pakistan and India, there have been several moments of historical significance since independence. This raises the unavoidable question: why did these moments fail to create historical leaders?

Asserting that no truly historic person has come to the fore since independence is not too much of an exaggeration.

Abdul Sattar Edhi may be seen as an exception, but as I have argued elsewhere, he was the product of the pre-independence British India. He is also an exception in that he was apolitical in his social projects. People like Edhi create their historic moments in social, not political, phenomena. These apolitical movements are led by socially marginalised segments of society.

In this way, a political movement becomes a social one. It does retain the potential to become movement at a later date. This is a point to be taken up at length some day. The reason for this lack of historic figures in post-colonial societies is the suppression of dialectical strains of history in these nation states. Forced homogenisation is a hallmark of the postcolonial society. This leads to contradictions and political crises. These crises demand a unilateral and unified image of the nation state, necessitating a unilaterally ideological state like Pakistan or India. In India, this is more pronounced in the rise of Hindutva and the BJP, and the electoral success of the likes of Narendra Modi and Yogi Adityanath. It can be safely assumed that neither of them will be remembered kindly by history. They will eventually become footnotes to history.

Successful people, therefore, are not necessarily historically great people. A person’s legacy determines the historic relevance of his contribution and achievement.

Tahir Kamran

tahir kamran
The writer is Professor in the faculty of Liberal Arts at the Beaconhouse National University, Lahore


  • It depends on personal living it was good for people or not. Poet like Mir Taqi Mir and other poets they are good and best forever

  • You have proved the post colonial era, an era of barrenness.

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