Pakistan’s Literary Saboteur at 100

Raza Naeem on the modernism of Muhammad Hasan Askari (1919 - 1978)

Pakistan’s Literary Saboteur at 100
Professor Muhammad Hasan Askari, who was born a hundred years ago last year – and whose 42nd death anniversary is incidentally tomorrow, on the 18th of January – was a renowned Urdu writer. He began his literary life with short-story writing. Then he started writing critical essays, but eventually metaphysics became his last resort and he renounced literature altogether. His first short-story Phislan (Slope) was published in Naya Adab (New Literature) in Lucknow, which was the official organ of the Progressive Writers Association. His writings later appeared in Lail-o-Nahaar, another Progressive journal. He translated Lenin’s The State and Revolution into Urdu. He was close to Firaaq Gorakhpuri (with whom he shared his alma mater at the University of Allahabad), and played a leading role in celebrating Algeria Day. After the creation of Pakistan, he settled in Karachi and began to teach English at the Islamia College. He raised a voice against the restrictions on progressive journals; but gradually great changes happened in his ideas. He began to oppose progressive literature and became inclined towards Sufism; so much so that he began to sing the praises of Maulana Ashraf Ali Thanvi, author of Bihishti Zevar (Heavenly Ornaments) and Mufti Muhammad Shafi.

How did this change happen with him?

One has absolutely no reason to doubt his honesty. He was a very honest and loyal person – so that the Americans tried very hard to bring him to their side in Pakistan but never succeeded. Similarly, when there was a lot of uproar against the USSR, Askari wrote many essays in favour of that socialist state in the daily Imroz. He was one of those people who would work and act upon something with honesty if he felt it himself. You could not buy him off.

One indeed feels sorry that Urdu literature lost him, but even before then, Sufism had had a great effect on him. Now why this change occurred in him, and from where, one cannot say. But though he never opposed socialism and never wrote against it, it is difficult to tell why a change occurred within him. His book Jadidiyat ya Maghribi Gumraahiyon ki Tarikh ka Khaaka (Modernism or A Sketch of the History of Western Depravities) is a creation of this latter period when he came under the influence of Mufti Muhammad Shafi and René Guénon.

This brief tract was published from Rawalpindi in 1979 after his sudden death and the enemies of the Enlightenment had well-publicized it. The preface had been written by Dr Muhammad Ajmal who had been a teacher of psychology at the Government College Lahore and had become a born-again Muslim in those very days. It was revealed from this preface that this booklet was actually written for religious seminaries and for its compilation the author had profited from the books of a French Roman Catholic named René Guénon who had become a Muslim. This syllabus of religious seminaries was presented to Mufti Muhammad Shafi by Askari but according to the author: “For some reason it couldn’t run in the course.” He did not tell the reason for it not being run in the course but conjecture suggests that the subject matter of “modernism” is so depraved that even the mufti and his comrades could not accept it.

But Askari’s courage is praiseworthy. He wrote up a judgment of the “depravities” of the West spread over a long duration of 25,000 years within 80-85 pages. He indicated the “depravities” from Plato upto Einstein. This tract has two parts. In the first part “a sketch of the intellectual decline of Europe” has been presented and Muslims have been advised to save themselves not only from Greek and Roman thought but to abstain from the scientific and philosophical ideas prevalent in the period of the Renaissance of Europe. The Enlightenment of the 18th century which was the precursor of the Industrial Revolution and democratic system is worthy of Askari’s curses; and both the French Revolution and socialism stand depraved according to him. If Askari likes any period of Western thought, that was the Middle Ages when the Roman Catholic Church had control over Western thought. The orders of the Pope of Rome were imagined to be the orders of God and priests filled their purses by selling passports to Heaven; and the mistresses of the Pope lived in palaces and their progeny obtained high offices. But nobody could open their mouth against any action of the Church. Innocents were declared heretics and practitioners of witchcraft by the order of religious courts and burnt alive.

In the second part, Askari profiting from his spiritual teacher René Guénon has given a list of those Western ideas (numbering 153) due to which “misconceptions and depravities are born about religion.” It should be remembered that Mr René Guénon was an orthodox Roman Catholic before becoming Muslim. And yet at the time Askari’s book came out, Italy itself, which is the headquarters of Roman Catholicism, had the Italian Communist Party as the country’s biggest party and a communist as Rome’s mayor!

Askari has evaluated Western thought with reference to religion. He is an opponent of rationalism, of humanism, the study of nature, of the truth of observation and experience, Darwin’s theory of evolution, Newton’s theory of gravity, Spencer’s evolution and Einstein’s relativity. However he ignored the theory of heliocentrism by Copernicus and Galileo, though if we look at historically, this same theory is the root of the “depravities” of all the aforementioned ideologies. He is an opponent of nationalism in economic matters; and of Western democracy, communism, historicism and progress. Hence according to Josh Malihabadi:

“Just dry bread and hot water all else excluded”

God alone knows by what expedience the modern techniques of arts and crafts have not been included in this long and wide list. Perhaps in Askari’s opinion, Western technology has no link with Western thought. But if we look closely, the responsibility for the “depravities” of the Muslims to a great extent lies with these same “Satanic spinning wheels”.

Askari’s objective is to save naive Muslims from Western depravities. According to him: “Here too in the period of the last 150 years (because of Western education) the mind of common people and especially those obtaining modern education has been gradually mutilated.”

Askari has not indeed named anyone but our depraved mind naturally thinks of Sir Syed Ahmad Khan and his comrades Maulana Muhammad Ali, Dr Zakir Hussain, Maulana Hasrat Mohani, Allama Iqbal and Mr Muhammad Ali Jinnah, who have played a very historic role in the ideological shaping of the Muslims of the subcontinent in the last 100-150 years. After all, these gentlemen had indeed gained much benefit from Western education.

Would that Askari had been alive and seen how attempts are being made these days to follow his instructions and how far the social lives of common Muslims have been improved by solutions which are being adopted to save people from depraved Western ideas such as democracy and civic freedom; and how far their morals and actions been reformed!

Our mentality is strange indeed. We see no issue in the economic and political slavery of the West, nor do we consider solutions to get rid of this slavery; though we do find faults in Western thought in order to cover our own ineptitude and helplessness. Sometimes we amuse ourselves by mocking the moral waywardness of the people of the West and become afflicted with the misunderstanding that we are morally and spiritually superior and better than the people of the West; but never seriously consider how misled are they who reach the moon while negotiating stages of the conquest of nature and how righteous are we that we cannot even decide upon the sighting of the moon.

The wise men of the West with their depravities have today added so much to the creative abilities of humans that if class interests did not hinder the way, not a single human soul in the world would remain neither hungry, unclothed, dependent, unemployed, uneducated or deprived of medicine and treatment.

But Askari is afflicted with a superiority complex that “Greek thinkers could not rise above the world of omnipotence” and Western thought could not understand the difference between the soul and body.

The admonition and instruction about saving themselves from the depravities of Greek thought which Askari has given to the Muslims is very much “after the war” - because the Muslim link to Greek thought is not a thing of today but even older than a thousand years. The beginning of this link was indeed during the period of the Caliphate of the Umayyads because when the Arabs conquered Syria, Iraq, Iran and Egypt, there were schools and monasteries present in Damascus, Alexandria, Aleppo, Harran, Basra, Ariha, Antakya (Antioch), Gondeshapur and many other places. Greek philosophy (especially neo-Platonic and Neo-Aristotliean) were systematically taught in them. Therefore the educated Christians and Muslims of the time were aware of Greek education and science and it was a natural thing for the Arab elite to be influenced by the thoughts of those Christian scholars and sages who had access to the rulers’ courts.

During the same period, under the influence of Greek thought, debates began among the Muslims over the issue of jabr-o-qadr (fate and freedom). Emir Muawiya was a proponent of force. The religious scholars of his court also tried to prove the idea of force in defence of the Emir from Scripture. On the other hand, the eminent Byzantine scholar Yahya Dimashqi (d. 748) who wrote in Greek and his student Theodore Abu Qurrah presented the ideology of freedom (of choice) and authority. Yahya Dimashqi even used to have debates in the court of Yazid with religious scholars on this topic. This was the same ideology of freedom in retribution for which the magi Jahm ibn Safwan (d. 699) and Ghaylan Dimashqi (d. 735) lost their lives during the Umayyad period. This was indeed the ideological slogan of the Abbasids against the Umayyads and the same creed of freedom was the foundation of the Mutazilite sect. It is a strange coincidence that the first book which issued from the pen of any Muslim after the dawn of Islam was indeed the bounty of Greek thought. The author of this book was Prince Khalid ibn Yazid who published three treatises on magic and occult sciences in 704 under the supervision of his Christian teacher Maryanos. It was Maryanos who taught alchemy to the prince and was fully aware of Greek thought. Khalid also translated many books of alchemy from the Greeks.

Later, Greek arts and science progressed a lot during the period of the Abbasids and countless books of Greek medicine, physics, geometry, astronomy and philosophy were translated into Arabic. Mamun al-Rashid had set up the Bayt-ul-Hikmah (The House of Translation and Compilation) for this very purpose. He sent his envoys to Emperor Leo in Constantinople and obtained Greek publications. The translations of Plato’s Republic; Aristotle’s Organon, Physics, and Ethics; Ptolemy’s Almagest; Porphyry’s Isagoge; Euclid’s geometry and the seven publications of the physician Galen were done in the same period. Galen’s works are now extinct in Greek and the Europeans received these from Arabic translations into their own languages. In addition, many books by neo-Platonist scholars of Alexandria which were commonly thought to be written by Plato and Aristotle were translated into Arabic from Greek. This period of translation continued for roughly a hundred years (750 to 850).

And then began the period of original writings but even on these the stamp of Greek thought is very deep. Al-Kindi, Abu Nasr Farabi, Ibn Arabi, Ibn Rushd, Sheikh Bu Ali Sina have all plucked bushels from Greek scholars. Al-Kindi refers to Socrates, Plato and Aristotle on every page. Abu Nasr Farabi who was also known as “the Second Teacher” (the First Teacher was Aristotle) wrote the treatise Al-Madina al-Fadila (The Virtuous City) which is based on Plato’s Republic and Al-Sīyāsah al-Madanīyah (State Politics) derived from Aristotle’s Politics.

The Muslims did not only benefit from the bountiful spring of Greek thought, but they also adopted the Ptolemaic system of universal motion according to which the earth was the center of the universe and the sun, moon and all the planets revolved around it. This Ptolemaic system remained a part of Muslim belief until the 19th century; in fact the same is probably taught in religious schools till today. In the same manner, before the prevalence of modern Western medicine, it was indeed Greek medicine which established its authority throughout the Islamic world. The physicians Hippocrates and Galen were Greek whom Bu Ali Sina made his leader and Euclid’s science of numbers was included in textbooks everywhere until the childhoods of the generation who came of age in the 1920s in the Indian subcontinent. In this situation, following in the footsteps of Askari, if “depraved” Greek thought is rejected at once, then what will remain of the treasure of Islamic art and science of the Middle Ages, of which we rightly feel proud?

In Askari’s opinion, the great fault of Greek thought was that: “The center of attention of Greek philosophers was human society, not the genesis and Resurrection,” meaning that worldliness had well taken root among these Greek philosophers. Secondly, “The Greeks were used to viewing every problem with a human perspective.”

These objections are so absurd that one is ashamed attributing them to Askari. Only a person totally unfamiliar with the circumstances of life and the thoughts of the Greek philosophers could accuse them of being “worldly.” Thales, Democritus, Heraclitus, Pythagoras, Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Diogenes – which of them was worldly and who lusted after worldly power and position and wealth? Had Socrates apologized, he would have lived in comfort and peace. Plato was a member of a wealthy household but he refused to accept high office at the request of his maternal uncle. Aristotle preferred teaching and learning to becoming Alexander the Great’s tutor. And everyone must have heard the tale of Diogenes. Alexander the Great asked him “What can I do for you?” and he answered “Please do not block my sunlight, that would be the greatest favour.”

However it is true that the center of attention of Greek philosophers was human society - Askari calls it worldliness. In his view, philosophy was not the pastime for the leisure of the full-bellied, but its objective was to create useful citizens; the reform of society and the purification of people’s morals and actions. The dialogues of Plato bear witness that Socrates used to argue about the basic values of life on the squares of Athens and in crowded soirees. In Plato’s own writings, especially Republic and Laws, we find plans to establish a better society. One can disagree with the recommendations of Greek philosophers and they have been disagreed with. We do not accept their solutions to the problems of life, but it is not possible to refute their sincerity and consideration. If translating the facts of existence, elevating the surface of people’s consciousness and awareness, liberating them from the spell of superstition, reforming their morals and actions and attempting for their well-being and prosperity are sins, then indeed the Greek philosophers were guilty of this sin.

But someone pray tell us: was the reform of people’s morals and habits, beliefs and actions not the purpose of Quranic teachings? The teaching of justice and fair play, emphasis on mercy and forgiveness, the message of brotherhood and love, the admonition of peace and reconciliation, the codes of marital life and inheritance, the discrimination between lawful and unlawful: would Askari see these as “worldiness” too?

(to be continued)

Note: All the translations from the Urdu are the writer’s own.

Raza Naeem is a Pakistani social scientist, book critic and award-winning translator and dramatic reader currently based in Lahore, where he is also the President of the Progressive Writers Association. He can be reached at:

Raza Naeem is a Pakistani social scientist, book critic and award-winning translator and dramatic reader based in Lahore, where he is also the president of the Progressive Writers Association. He can be reached via email: and on Twitter: @raza_naeem1979