Wealth beyond measure

In the Nawab of Hoti's brilliant book collection from a century or more ago, Amineh Hoti finds much of value to our contemporary, divided world

Wealth beyond measure
As the act of reading a book increasingly threatens to become a thing of the past, I was delighted to have the privilege to get my hands dirty whilst dusting off a few old books of the Nawab - or Lord - of Hoti, Lieutenant Colonel Mohamed Akbar Khan Hoti – the paternal grandfather of my husband. These books have so much to teach us if we simply find the time to look through them.

Born in 1885, Akbar Khan Hoti was an army officer who in 1904-5 joined the British Indian land forces and accompanied Sir Louis Dane’s mission to Afghanistan. He served in the Frontier Corps, Peshawar, in 1907-8 and with the Imperial troops in Egypt, Gallipoli and France. Finally he retired as Major in 1922 while he was Member of the Council of State of India. Sir Akbar was awarded a KBE in 1931.

The Nawab's collection includes a handwritten manuscript from warrior-poet Khushal Khan Khattak
The Nawab's collection includes a handwritten manuscript from warrior-poet Khushal Khan Khattak

Despite his army background, foreign travels and many commitments, he dreamed of building a vast library. He had taken pains during his rich lifetime to collect an impressive collection of books from far and wide - at significant personal cost. His library in Hoti, Mardan, built of some of the finest woodwork in the region, would grow to become one of the largest libraries in South Asia at the time (Spain, James W., The Way of the Pathans: 1973). It is undoubtedly a national treasure of Pakistan and the region, the value of which must be reaffirmed in our modern, fast-paced world.

What often gets lost in the world today is the rich value of books. They help us with acquiring and appreciating different perspectives and celebrating diversity. They open our minds and help us to delve into different times and different ideas in ways that no other medium can quite match. They are our best teachers. And in this time when so many around the world feel lost in the swirl of the modern world, they can bring us back to our human roots.

The Nawab’s collection of books was breathtaking because it spanned such a diverse range of topics. I had heard that the Nawab had in his library handwritten copies of the Quran, prepared by emperors of Mughal India with their seal on them. I even learned that there were some precious Arabic and Persian books in the original collection, and a handwritten manuscript by the great Pashtun scholar and poet, Khushal Khan Khattak.

Nawab Akbar Khan Hoti
Nawab Akbar Khan Hoti

On religion alone, the collection ranged from a 1957 Holy Bible to works such as History of the New Testament Times: the Time of Jesus (London: 1878). I found one fascinating old book, Christian Dear, published and printed in London, which began with the wisdom of a Biblical verse from Isaiah XXX. 15: “In quietness and in confidence shall be your strength.” Another book called David of Judah (London: 1937) by Richard Blaker, stated in its subtitle, “out of the strong came forth sweetness.” The Nawab’s collection revealed a refreshing reverence for different faiths and the knowledge that they can pass to us regardless of our own belief systems. Just think of the rich quotes from the Bible and other sacred texts above and their deep universality.

The Nawab’s collection of historical texts spanned the globe and the great expanse of human history. Peoples of All Nations consisted of fascinating descriptions of peoples from Palestine to Russia and beyond. There were also several volumes of The Cambridge Modern History (1907) books, from the Story of Spain to the Story of Venice. All one needs is a good book on the history of the era, one which could easily be found in so rich a library.

Continuing the historical tour de force offered by this library, another book, Historians’ History of the World Vol VIII (London: 1907), covered a wide array of topics ranging from “The Scope and Influence of Arabic History” to the Crusades. Another work, titled Racism by the Law, by Magnus Hirschfeld (1938), teaches, “Racial fanaticism” is “a phantom that bodes destruction.” The book continues, “There may be no defense against gas attack but there is a defense against false ideas, which can be dispelled by critical truths.” This is just more evidence that the lessons needed for our divided modern world are hiding within the pages of old books.

For the romantic and thoughtful, there was a book on The Romantic Folk Tales of Pakistan by Behram Tariq and another on the Ninety Short Tales of Love and Women from the Arabic (London: 1928). This book contained a small story called The Afflicted Palm Tree by Nuzhat ul Udaba: “I saw in a certain land two palm trees, and one of them was dead. The other groaned and wept for a long time, so that the caravans that passed drank of its tears and watered their beasts with them, thinking that they came from some hidden spring.” We need to take the story of Akbar Khan’s love of books to the younger generations - some of whom may undoubtedly be struggling with a world dominated by materialism and superficiality and who could benefit from the lessons of philosophical fables like the ones provided by Nuzhat ul Udaba.

The ultimate measure of a successful society is its love and respect for books. Muslims have long valued books, just like their Abrahamic and non-Abrahamic brothers and sisters. Indeed, the Quran, the book of God, is derived from iqra (to read) in which God says, “today I have perfected your religion for you” because in the Quran God demonstrates how He values thought, reason and knowledge. God even calls all human beings who have knowledge “ahl-e-aql” i.e. “People of Thought”. Muhammad Asad, the famed translator of the Quran, whose grave I visited in Granada, Spain, dedicated his Quranic translation to “People who Think”. As Pakistan is a Muslim majority country, it too must come to once again value books.

Yet sadly, books seem to be losing their value around the globe. Children today spend a large part of their time on their gadgets and access the world through the Internet. One wealthy English speaking Pakistani woman, when asked what she was reading, answered, “I do not read. Full Stop!” Mr. Barmak Pazhwak, who has spent years promoting peace in Pakistan and Afghanistan and who works at the US Institute of Peace, once told me that, tragically, during a war in Afghanistan his ancestral books at home were used by soldiers to make fire and keep themselves warm in winter. Nawab Akbar Khan’s priceless books too have suffered similar adversity - apparently they have become food for termites, they have been stolen and sold in the Islamabad market for minimal sums, and some have simply been discarded. While some remain in the private homes of his descendants, they are very little read by those who give full attention to material goods and consumerist fads - and far less to seeking knowledge.

Akbar Khan had himself written a number of booklets which provide a sense of his enlightened worldview.  In his Presidential Address in Simla, 1933, he writes: “no one…should prefer wealth to virtues but should always prefer virtues to wealth”, but he also adds “the path of righteousness and truth is full of dangers, and is extremely difficult to traverse”. He addresses a Shi’a audience and yet quotes Jesus. He shows great tolerance, writing “[a]ccording to Islam, Muslims should not interfere with any place where people worship their God, be it a church, temple, fire-temple or any other place of worship”. In line with the Sufi tradition, he even quotes the interfaith Muslim saint, Mian Mir, who laid the foundation stone of the Sikh temple in Amritsar. In one booklet he openly celebrates and yearns for “religious tolerance”, saying, “may it be that the same tolerance and unity [that once existed] again be witnessed amongst” the people of what is now the South Asian region.

Apart from his great writings, generosity and charitable spirit, the most valuable legacy of Akbar Khan Hoti, is his effort in acquiring knowledge (ilm) and his love of books. This collection of books covering a diverse array of topics shows his sense of acceptance and of his appreciation of diversity. What made Akbar Khan Hoti a great leader and a good human being was not the shoes he wore or the bag he carried, but his work quenching the human thirst for knowledge. If coupled with humility, then this message will resonate not just for his descendants but also for younger Pakistanis and for all global citizens. As our forbearers did, we all must rediscover books and begin to value them for the wonderful treasures and companions they are.