Contribution of Sayyid Ahmad Khan to Urdu Language and Literature | K. A. Nizami

Sayyid Ahmad exercised tremendous influence on both the style and content of Urdu literature. In fact, he ushered a dawn of new era in the history of Urdu literature. He extricated Urdu prose from the meshes of verbose and ornate literary style and insisted on simple, direct and clear exposition of ideas. He used the Urdu language as a vehicle for the communication of serious ideas and thus extended the scope and content of writings in Urdu. He advised the Urdu scholars to adopt and assimilate what is best in other languages of the world. For the first time in the history of Urdu literature one finds references to the literatures and literary tendencies of Europe, particularly England. In his article contributed to the Tahzibul-ul-Akhlaq, he introduced a large number of English writers and essayists to the Urdu reading public.

Equally deep was his influence on the spirit and mechanics of the Urdu poetry. He exhorted the Urdu poets to turn their attention to natural poetry and “communicate in Urdu the ideas of English poets”. [see Letter to Muhammad Husain Azad, Khutut-i Sir Sayyid, p. 22] The Muqaddama-i-Sh’ir-u-Sha’iri of Hali owed its inspiration to these views of Sir Sayyid Ahmad Khan.

It was due to the efforts of Sayyid Ahmad that Urdu poetry came to be used for social and moral –and even political –awakening of the masses. What is generally termed as qaumi sha’iri began under the influence of ‘the Grand Old Man of Aligarh’. He exhorted poets who came to attend the annual sessions of the Muslim Educational Conference to write verses to awaken the people from slumber and infuse in them a new spirit of enlightenment, culture and dedicated service to the nation. The poetry of Shibli, Hali, Nazeer Ahmad and others was diverted in to these channels by the great Sayyid. The Musaddas of Hali which is a landmark in the history of Urdu poetry was written at the instance of Sayyid Ahmad Khan.

Similarly, Urdu journalism also owes a lot to Sayyid Ahmad Khan. It was in fact Tahzibul Akhlaq which laid the foundation of journalism in Urdu language. Sayyid Ahmad stood for the highest traditions of journalism. He wrote to some of the Urdu editors that politeness, honesty and integrity should be the ideals of every journalist. Besides, he laid great emphasis on freedom of expression and wanted the press to be an honest and truthful mouth-piece of the public opinion.

Sayyid Ahmad Khan was probably the first Urdu writer who advised the people to adopt type printing in preference to litho. He considered type printing necessary for the progress of Urdu language and journalism. He had great artistic sense in printing and had an Urdu press of his own.

Sayyid Ahmad had, at one time, advocated the idea of an Urdu university as he thought that instruction in mother tongue was more helpful in the development of young minds. Conscious of the fact that Urdu was a child in the family of languages, he sought to enrich it by getting as many English works translated into it as possible. But later on his views changed and he said that the Indians could never compete with the nations of the West if their knowledge remained confined to translations. In one of his letters from England, he wrote that the speed of progress was so swift in the West that before a book came out from the press its theories became out of date. Under such circumstances, Sayyid Ahmad Khan argued, the Indians would always lag behind others if they relied on translations and did not have recourse to original sources.

Sayyid Ahmad wanted to compile a comprehensive history of Urdu Literature containing a complete bibliography of books written in Urdu, but owing to other pressing demands on his time, he could not undertake this work. He also wanted to compile an Urdu dictionary. The specimen portion published by him in the journal of Scientific Society that he had a very ambitious plan in mind. He, however, prepared an Urdu grammar in 1841. He was the first Urdu writer to give serious thought to the problem of punctuation in Urdu language and formulated elaborate rules in that regard.

Some of the schemes of Sayyid Ahmad did not materialize in his life-time but their urgency was realized by the succeeding generations and one by one all schemes were taken up. The need of introducing some system of punctuation in Urdu is being felt by the scholars of language and what Sayyid Ahmad felt necessary in the last quarter of 19th century, is being regarded as an urgent necessity today.

In fact, Sayyid Ahmad Khan laid the foundation of one what may call ‘the Aligarh School of Urdu Literature’. Nearly all the important Urdu writers of the late 19th century and the early 20th centuries—Shibli, Hali, Nazir Ahmad, Zakaullah, Wahiduddin Salim, Abdul Halim Sharar, Dr. Maulvi Abdul Haq, Maulana Zafar Ali Khan, Hasrat Mohani, Mohammad Ali, etc. –belong to this school. They continued the tradition of Sayyid Ahmad Khan in Urdu Literature and applied it to the new and bold experiments that they made in that direction.

Suggested Readings: Nizami, K. A.,  Builders of Modern India: Sayyid Ahamd Khan, Publication Division, Ministry of Information and Braodcasting, Govt. of India, 1965.

Published on: Sep 20, 2016 @ 17:25

Khaliq Ahmad Nizami

Khaliq Ahmad Nizami

Prof. Khaliq Ahmad Nizami was associated with Department of History, AMU, Aligarh. He established Sir Syed Academy at Aligarh.

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