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The legacy of Ishtiaq Ahmed

Pakistan may have lost one of the most original and imaginative detective fiction writers, but what needs to be mourned more is the legacy of hatred left by him and others that is alive in the minds of millions of children of our times

The legacy of Ishtiaq Ahmed

With the sudden demise of Ishtiaq Ahmed, an era of detective fiction writing in Urdu has drawn to close. A pioneer of a particular genre, Ahmed churned out close to one thousand novels. Like several other writers of detective fiction, he drew inspiration from none other but the legendary Ibn-i-Safi (1928-1980). But unlike others who, after Ibn-i-Safi’s death, capitalised on the popularity of his Imran Series and simply copied his characters, Ishtiaq Ahmed carved out his niche as an original writer. He launched his own series with Inspector Jamshed as its central character.

Associated with the police department as a detective, Inspector Jamshed was helped in accomplishing his missions by his children — Mehmud, Farooq and Farzana.

The second series was named after Inspector Kamran Mirza. His character was different only to the extent that he was helped in his missions by his son, Aftab, along with Asif and Farhat — his friend’s kids living with him. His most original series, and yet least popular, was that of Shoki brothers. Written in first person narrative, it was about four brothers running a private detective company. It had Ishtiaq Ahmed himself as the protagonist along with the rest of his real-life brothers Aftab, Ishfaq and Ikhlaq who collectively formed Shoki brothers.

For over two decades, Ishtiaq Ahmed captured the imagination of a whole generation of Pakistani children growing up in the turbulent period of 1980s and 1990s. Ahmed himself did not remain unaffected by these changes. Born in Panipat in early 1940s, his family had moved to Pakistan and settled in Jhang. Partition and the painful, drawn out process of rehabilitation must have had profound imprints on his personality.

More importantly, however, in the early 1980s, Jhang was emerging as the epicentre of sectarian violence in Pakistan. While the earlier novels of Ahmed did not show any explicit signs of religiosity — or certainly not any extremist or sectarian tendencies — things changed as he became a re-born Muslim. He was transformed into a staunch believer and an activist for the cause of khatam-i-nabuwwat, i.e. movement for the protection of the finality of Prophethood. This entailed joining hands with and lending support to organisations which were specifically involved in hate speech and persecution of Ahmadis.

Initially, he did not take up “religious missions” as a theme in his novels. He would simply advise his readers, most of whom were teenagers, to give priority to prayers, tasks assigned to them by their parents and do the home work before getting on to read the novel(s).

Initially, he did not take up “religious missions” as a theme in his novels. He would simply advise his readers, most of whom were teenagers, to give priority to prayers, tasks assigned to them by their parents and do the home work before getting on to read the novel(s). But in his later novels — more particularly in his special issues, or khaas number as they were called — the teams of Inspector Jamshed, Inspector Kamran Mirza and Shoki brothers would combine to fight against anti-Muslim forces. One such remarkable piece (in terms of its imagination) was Yuda par Hamla which talks about a joint project sponsored by world powers to destroy a planet named Yuda causing threat to the existence of Earth.

As Ahmed’s detectives exposed towards the end, it was all a gimmick on the part of Western powers as Yuda was neither a planet nor a threat to Earth; they were actually planning to attack and destroy Moon. Without moon, the planners had estimated, Islam will come to an end as Muslims follow lunar calendar which is important, among other things, for the performance of many of their rituals.

Ishtiaq Ahmed’s novels surely had an impact on changing the worldview of his readers as well. A reader once asked him as to how could Farzana and Farhat work with men and boys who were not their mehram? In fact, how could Farhat live in the same house with Aftab and Asif when she was not their real sister? Another reader wondered if Kamran Mirza was actually a Mirzai — a pejorative term used for Ahmadis or the followers of Mirza Ghulam Ahmad.

It is not the religiosity of Ishtiaq Ahmed but the turn towards extreme sectarianism which amazes me. How could he remain oblivious to the impact of his writings on young impressionable minds? How could such an imaginative mind be so full of hatred towards those with a different religious belief? In a way he was passionately driven to serve a cause. It is just that his idea of a cause worth serving was different from others. I also wonder if this has to do with the inglorious decade of the 1980s which changed his worldview.

After all it was not just Ishtiaq Ahmed who had started looking at every minor thing from a religious lens. This brings me back to the Imran Series of Ibn-i-Safi. In the original series and characters developed by Ibn-i-Safi, the members of secret service included Julia from Switzerland and Joseph from Africa. The most interesting aspect of Joseph’s character was that he was an alcoholic. Imran had to put him on a quota as he could not afford to pay for the quantity of booze he was consuming on a daily basis.

Yoda-Par-Hamla-by-Ishtiaq-Ahmed copy

In the fake Imran series that followed Ibn-i-Safi’s death — most popular of which is written by Mazhar Kaleem MA — Julia converted to Islam and Joseph gave up drinking! The other famous series and its characters — Jasusi Duniya with Colonel Afridi and Captain Hameed as the lead — were developed during the pre-partition days. Ibn-i-Safi did not change the settings after he moved to Pakistan. He kept the cosmopolitan feel of his novels and characters alive.

Although he had never set foot in Europe, his depiction of its everyday life was incredibly close to reality. Again, after his death, an “Indian” Colonel Afridi was difficult for Mazhar Kaleem to handle who, thus, made him join the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) as head of its security and surveillance operations.

The 1980s has been a decade that witnessed the resurgence of religion throughout the globe. But the way it has captured the imagination of Pakistanis is beyond comprehension. While other societies seem to be gradually moving out of that phase, Pakistan is still trapped in the 1980s. More alarmingly, the intolerant legacy of 1980s has lingered on through a variety of mediums such as textbooks, Urdu newspapers and so on. This means that those who born in 1990s and 2000s are also being raised with a worldview which is intolerant and myopic and does not contribute towards fostering critical inquiry.

One enduring legacy of that period was Ishtiaq Ahmed. With his death, Pakistan has lost one of the most original and imaginative detective fiction writers. In our culture it is considered bad manners to speak ill of the dead. I mourn the death of Ishtiaq Ahmed, but what I mourn more is the part of my childhood, built upon the writings of Ishtiaq Ahmed among others, teaching hatred for others and persisting as a legacy which is still alive and kicking in the lives of millions of other children of our times.

Ali Usman Qasmi

ali usman qasmi
The writer teaches history at LUMS. He has recently co-edited a volume titled Muslims Against the Muslim League: Critiques of the Idea of Pakistan (New Delhi: Cambridge University Press, 2017). He tweets @AU_Qasmi

19 comments

  • I dont remember learning hatred and intolerance from Ishtiaq Ahmad novels which I read all through the 80′s and early 90′s. Now when I look back I think the primary lessons it taught were honesty, character, integrity, respect for elders, love of your country and fighting the powers out to harm it. It was not Ishtiaq Ahmad’s fault what questions his readers were asking him. I have not read Yuda per Hamla so cant give my two cents on that. As for Ibn-e-Safi, being raised in the puritanical times of 70′s and 80′s, I must admit that his characters and situations felt alien and being a kid, I was unable to imagine or be inspired by the world he was talking about.

    • People like you have done the most harm to Pakistan. You cannot take a point of view without assuming that someone must be kafir. Grow up and let others have a point of view.

  • It’s this type of facile opinion writing that irritates me no end. As a historian, the author should know better than to pass judgment on Ishtiaq Ahmed that is divorced from the cultural, social, and political contexts that defined him. Selectively quoting from his books or the questions posed to him by readers to justify an ideological position opposed to the politics of his time and condemn him for his “legacy of hatred” makes for neither an informed view of his contributions to children’s literature in Pakistan nor is it helpful indeed in actually understanding who he was as a person. This is not scholarship or informed opinion, it’s just prejudice. In fact, the writer has no way of measuring Ishtiaq Ahmed’s impact on children and their habits of reading in our country. He’s just using Ishtiaq Ahmed’s demise to forward his own unoriginal take on why we are where we are in Pakistan. Children like I was will always treasure Ishtiaq Abmed for inculcating in us a love for reading.

  • Ishtiaq Ahmed was good imaginative fiction writer and never tried to urge religious adventurism like other novel writers. He was interpreters of traditional moral ethics . With his death we have lost a specified writers .

  • i think the writer is lost. ishtiaq ahmed did not teach hatred nor his novels contained hatred. if you have problem with khtme-nubuwwat, please openly say so instead of hiding behind ishtiaq ahmed.

    maybe you are ok with Mirza Ghulam Qadiani’s writings about prophets of Islam, or you are qadiani yourself, but then debate the issue separately instead of dragging Ishtiaq Ahmed in that.

    • You have shown typical Pakistani mentality, when runs our of arguments start labeling others Qadiani.

      • no one is running out of arguments, nor i am labelling anyone qadiani. i actually posed very direct questions to the author’s point of view. the author is mourning his lost childhood because of ishtiaq ahmed. he is trying his utmost best, and failing miserably is providing a coherent argument.

        author point of view is that the movement of khatmenubuwwat equals teaching hatred and intolerance. he should provide argument instead of slandering ishtiaq ahmed.

        OR, if he is qadiani, make a point from that perspective that hey i am qadiani, i disagree with the movement of khatme-nubuwwatt because of x,y,z reasons.

        whatever the point is, be open and discuss the issue directly.

      • Please Google: Ali Usman Qasmi
        He in fact is a Qadiani (not a pejorative or derogatory – same as Mirzai – is used to differentiate between a Muslim & a Non-Muslim. While term Ahmedi (Second most famous name of Prophet Muhammad PBUH) is ambiguous. That’s why Organisations like Khatam-e-Nubuwat and others object and refrain from using it.)

        Nothing against anyone who want to believe in any number of prophets; only objection is DO NOT portray oneself to be Muslim & ones religion to be TRUE Islam. That’s why constitution amendment was demanded and established.

        All this matters if one think & belief that FAITH is important. Otherwise it is just a bull ****.

    • Brother Ali Khawaja, you do not know thw writer of the article. He is grand son of Maulana Bahaul Haq Qasmi. His dada Jan belonged to Ahrar and was staunch anti qadiani. Please do not label others with such tag if you do not know the reality.

      • Dear Amjad:

        How does his ancestral background make him above criticism. If I am not wrong he is the son of Mr. Atta ul Haq Qasmi and brother of Yasir Pirzada. It does not mean that his views are right. He did accuse Ishtiaq Ahmed of inculcating hatred in innocent minds. In my opinion Ishtiaq Ahmed’s novels prevented millions of kids to join bad company and involving in immoral activities in addition to improving the Urdu language skills.

      • i think your question was already answered, but to answer your logic, then you cannot talk about the Aazar, father of Hazrat Ibrahim Alaihi-salam (He was idol-maker and idol-worshipper), and Son of Hazrat Nuh Alahi-salam (he disobeyed his father and was made among the disbelievers). from this logic, whatever they did does not matter since they were blood relative to the prophets.

        our love is for Rasoolullah sallahoalahiwassalam. that’s that standard to be looked at everyone, not who is the relative of a great aalim or mufti or leader, with due respect to all the ulama-e-haq, and those who gave such sacrifices while working for ahrar-ul-muslimeen.

    • Mr. Khawaja, if Ishtiaq Ahmad did not teach hatred then why did he write at the end of his novels asking for boycotting products of Shezan as it is ‘Qadianyun Ki factory hai’? Read Mr. Nadeem’s email above. What business a fiction writer has to teach the children to hate fellow Pakistani based on their beliefs?
      Most of us have no problem with Khtme-nubuwwat . I’m a firm believer of it. However, I have problem with tehreek e Khtme-nubuwwat when they teach hatred and killing based on someone’s beliefs. They do this and we all know it. If you don’t have any problem with it then you should reflect upon it and tell us why don’t you any problem with someone who propagate killing someone because of their beliefs?
      Mr. Ali Qasmi may be or may not be ok with Mirza Ghulam Ahmad’s writings, I don’t know. This article has nothing to do with it. Whatever, Mirza Ghulam Ahmad wrote and his followers believe is their right. You can have a civilized discussion on it if possible without resorting to name calling or threats if possible but you cannot deny Ahmadi their right to live in their own country without fear. Your accusation that he may be Ahmadi (actually you use word Qadiani, a deragotory term for Ahmadi) is a proof that Ishtiaq Ahmad was successful in instilling hatred in his readers.

      • i can boycott someone based on my beliefs, not because of hate. i can refuse to do business with someone if it contradicts with my beliefs. its not because of hatred. this is a very fundamental concept. so i don’t agree with your statement that its hate. its simply refusal of doing business with a group who degrades Rasoolullah sallaho-alahi wassalam.

        second, please provide evidence of teaching hatred, and killings. on the contrary, lot of ulema who spoke to raise awareness about qadianis have lost their lives. again, i’ll wait for your evidence. and please also tell your opinion, as a muslim (if you are not qadiani as well) what should one do when someone degrades your prophet.

        qadianis can do whatever they want. no one is doing any name calling. they degrade our prophet. we have every rights to refuse doing business with them. which we do in the most civilized manner.

  • I remember the bold advertisements at the end of his novels about boycotting products of Shezan as it is ‘Qadianyun Ki factory hai’. Being an ahmadi child in the 80s I remember going from being someone who couldn’t wait for the next novels and khaas numbers to giving up on his writings completely as his transition happened from a novelist to mullah. Did he influence the hatred in that generation? Of course he did – I was at the receiving end of it.

  • Its a well written piece of writing mostly carrying praises for the man’s skills which he fully deserved. However, in this article atleast, I fail to find any significant evidence of Ishtiaq polluting the young minds through his novels though he might have done that at some religious fora. The author of this article, the LUMS professor himself seems to be biased and carrying sacterian feelings by blowing up a small mole into a mountain..

  • I will listen to what this guy has to say when he’ll be be able to write one interesting novel.

  • Absolutely disgusting article and cheap mentality to pick and choose points of interest to make up an argument. Just write one novel like him and then talk.

  • I can echo and relate to many things written by the author. I was a keen reader of Ishtiaq Ahmed and have read most of his novels etc. A very well written description of the works and legacy of Ishtiaq Ahmed. He was a typical right wing “patriot” who unfortunately went down the route of creating sectarian hatred. I remember writing to him as a 9 year old (in broken urdu hand writing) and pointing to his sectarian bias. He was very kind to reply despite not admitting to it!

    Notwithstanding the afore-mentioned comments, he certainly had a great impact and credit must be given to his creative and imaginative skills as a writer.

  • Dear Author, how could Ishtiaq sahib favour alcoholism or boy-girl friendship in his novels when he wrote novels and stories for children???!!! AND when these are not only abhorred in islam, but also in all the other religions, so a person who is training the children to distinguish btween the good and bad (in all religions), how can he be considered an Extremist etc…..?? BTW, Mirza is the name most commonly used by Shiites, that clearly shows Ishtiaq Ahmed was not Anti-Shia. Peace!!

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