Is Naseer Right? That Hyderabad More ‘Cultured’ Than Lucknow?

I don’t know when the interview was done but I saw it on YouTube last week. Naseeruddin Shah dismissed Lucknow as a centre of culture and praised Hyderabad sky-high by comparison. Naseer’s right but there’s a reason why Lucknow lost out in the culture stakes with both Hyderabad and Lahore. Both cities were around, their “culture” intact, till 1947. Lucknow had begun to “die” in 1857, after the British exiled Nawab Wajid Ali Shah to Metiabruz near Kolkata in late 1856, triggering 1857’s Great Uprising.

Lucknow, however, retained its premier slot for the institution of the “ulema”, plural for “alim” which derives from “ilm”, or knowledge with theology as the main expertise. With Maulana Kalbe Sadiq’s death at the age of 83 last month, the curtain finally fell on the institution of a long line of Lucknow’s “ulema”.

That this was largely a Shia institution is easily explained: the Nawabs of Awadh were Shia, which is where the patronage came from. This mustn’t detract from the fact that internationally known Sunni institutions like Darul Uloom Nadwatul Ulema also flourished. There was considerable intellectual rapport between the sects. How else does one explain the masterly Muazna-e-Anis-o-Dabir, a comparative study of Anis and Dabir, written by one of Nadwa’s greatest scholars Shibli Nomani. Anis and Dabir were famous Marsia writers, a genre focused on the tragedy of Karbala, central to the observance of Muharram, not exclusively but primarily a Shia occasion.

Kalbe Sadiq came from a long line of “ulema”, theological scholars conversant with liberal traditions of which Sufism was another part. Saiyid Waris Shah, Pir of Dewa Sharief, 7 km from Lucknow, had a simple explanation for not going through the “namaz” rituals. “Where is the space to bow in supplication?” The implication was: “He is in me”.

During my schooldays, a phase of cultural bifurcation between school and home, the two towering “Alims” of Lucknow were Maulana Kalbe Hussain (alias Kabban Sahib), Kalbe Sadiq’s father, and Maulana Ali Naqi (Naqqan Sahib), both brilliant orators whose sermons were much valued at congregations called the “Majlis”, provided the speaker deftly brought in Karbala to clinch the argument.

Lucknow’s celebrated tapestry of manners found itself frayed even in this limited circle of theologians and their followers. A group, clearly not from among “Naqqan Sahib’s” followers, created what for Lucknow was a major scandal. The group accused the respected cleric of blasphemy and physically assaulted him.

Apparently, Naqqan Sahib had in his research spotted mention of water in Imam Hussain’s tent. Even a hint like this was anathema to a bunch of fanatics. The absence of water in Karbala’s torrid heat heightens Hussain’s tragedy. For that reason, even a suggestion of water in Karbala would soften the tragic effect. The truth, of course, is “Naqqan Sahib” had never said “water” was available. He simply cited sources hinting at such a possibility.

Worst was the treatment of poet Yaas Yagana Changezi, a contemporary of Jigar, Firaq and Josh. Yagana wrote: “Samajh mein kuch nahee ata,/ Parhey jaaney se kya hasil?/ Namazon mein hain kuch maaney,/ to pardesi zabaan kyon ho?”

In one of his “naats”, or religious songs, Yagana referred to Prophet Mohammad in less than reverent terms. He probably did not know that he had violated one of the unenforced codes: “Ba Khuda deewana baash-o/ Ba Mohammad hoshiyar.” (Take liberties with God, but be careful with Mohammad)

Dara Shikoh’s prime minister, Chandrabhan Brahman, broke the code brazenly: “Panja dar panja-e-Khuda daram/ Man che parwa e Mustafa daram.” (My hand is in the hand of God: Why should I worry about Mohammad?)

It reflects in the backward slide of a tolerant culture that Yagana did not go scot-free. His face was blackened and he was given a donkey ride through the old city.

The liberal streak in the “ulema” of Lucknow comes out in bold relief in an incident concerning Josh Malihabadi. His Marsia titled “Hussain and Revolution” became a cult poem even in devout circles. Josh became a popular invitee to various Imambaras of Lucknow, indeed across the country, including Hyderabad. He built up a reputation for Marsias, second only to the great Mir Anis. A group of orthodox Shias turned up at the residence of the great Alim of his age, Maulana Naasir ul Millat, armed with a complaint. Josh, devoted to liquor (he called it Kaaba e khaas o aam), should be banned from reciting Marsias from pulpits in “our sacred imambaras”.

After reading Josh’s Marsias, the Maulana invited the complainants and Josh. What happened next was dramatic. The maulana spread out his personal prayer mat for Josh and invited him to recite “Hussain and Inquilab”. The message from the maulana was straightforward: it would be wrong to occupy the pulpit inebriated.

This was the open mindedness Maulana Kalbe Sadiq inherited from the generations of “ulema”. From the 1990s he had pleaded: Even if the Muslims win the Ram Janmabhoomi land dispute, they should gift the land to the Hindus. “You will win their goodwill.” His point was that a Muslim can turn towards Ka’aba and say his prayers anywhere. “Ram is central to the Hindu ethos.” He initiated the joint Shia-Sunni namaz, allowing the Sunni cleric to take the lead.

He traced Muslim backwardness to a singular lack of education and dedicated his life to establishing non-sectarian institutions in every possible field. But he died a disappointed man because of the expanding communalism and a community trapped in the snare of selfish political leaders.

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