Indian-Islamic Civilization and Persian Language
By Asif Farrukhi
Dawn: November 19, 2006
Down to earth and unassuming, Professor Latif Ullah is a reserved and simple man. He shuns publicity and stays away from the limelight. He is the author of five books related to Sufism and poetry and has translated some eight books from Persian into Urdu. Not associated with any of the so-called learned bodies, he carries out his intellectual pursuits with a remarkable degree of independence and personal devotion. This is how I have been seeing him for a long time now; neither green in sawan nor dry in bhadon.
“What’s in a name,” he may ask. Some of his books carry the name Professor S.M. Latifullah, which may sound ponderous in Urdu. He was named Mohammed Latif Ullah by his father but later on added Sohail himself. His full name is documented on his passport, but is hardly ever used. His matriculation certificate states his date of birth as July 1928, but he thinks that it is most probably an estimate. Born in the state of Alwar in Rajastan, he still retains vivid memories of his childhood. He smiles when I ask him if he can recall any childhood pranks. “I was weak and sickly as a child, but I was good at studies. I would remember whatever I studied. I studied Persian and completed my lessons in Sa’adi’s Gulistan,” he says. “Our family was settled in Alwar for many generations, but my uncle used to say that we are from Bukhara.”
About his education he say, “I did my matriculation as a private candidate from the Punjab University in 1946. I was in my second year of intermediate when we came to Pakistan. I joined in as junior clerk in the Education Ministry in December, 1947. In 1959, I took admission in Urdu College and resumed my education,” he recalls with clarity. “We used to have our classes on Sundays. This was a session planned specially for those in service. We were called Sunday students”. He managed to combine his further education with a full time job and proudly recounts, “I did my BA in 1963 and MA from the University of Karachi in 1965.” In October 1966, he joined the Government College for Men, Karachi as a lecturer and it was from there that he retired in July of 1988. He did enroll for a PhD but never got around to completing his dissertation, as by that time he began to devote more time to his study of mysticism and Islam, which proved to be a life-long interest.
“We had a strong family tradition of tassawuf,” he recalls. “My grandfather became a disciple of Abid Shah who had travelled from Muradabad to settle in Alwar. My father had become a disciple of his younger brother, Wahid Ali Shah.” Later in life, he met Maulana Ghulam Mohammed in 1980 and was deeply impressed by him. He started writing during his college days and two of his essays received prizes in students’ competitions. Both of the essays were on seerat. His first book was a study of Ghalib. The book was completed in 1969 but for many years it could not find a publisher. It appeared only in 1998.
His major work is the detailed study Tasawuf aur Siriyat, published by the Idara-i-Saqafat-i-Islamia, Lahore. He also wrote a treatise on Mansur Hallaj, one of the most enigmatic names in the world of Sufism. Well-grounded in classical Persian, he accomplished translations of a number of works related to his field and these include the malfoozat (wisdom literature) of such luminaries as Shah Meena, Jahangir Ashraf Samnani, and a biography of Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya. He also translated Hassan Sijzi’s Kitab-i-Ishq for the first ever publication of this treatise, about 700 years after it was first written. One of the figures he has studied in detail and written about is the somewhat neglected figure of Ainul Quzzat Hamdani whose Maktoobat are referred to by no less a person than Hazrat Nizam uddin Auliya.
Perhaps his crowning achievement is the recently published Amir Khusrau’s Dibacha to his collection of verses Ghurratul Kamal. A proper treatise in itself, the Dibacha was identified as a basic source for understanding the fundamentals of Indo-Iranian tradition in poetry. Askari, a prominent literary critic, was keen to have it translated into Urdu. The eminent critic Shams ur Rahman Faruqi penned an introduction to this book and praised Professor Latif Ullah’s translation.
His latest book is Rumi’s Payam-i-Ishq. A few years back, he studied Mirabai in close proximity to the Sufi tradition. It is interesting to note that somehow, the Sufi notions of love have emerged as a unifying theme in many of his scholarly works. This may also be related to the position he has adopted. He is interested in religious and devotional work, but has no love lost for mullahs. He says he has disliked them right from his early days. He finds them only partially conversant with the changes taking place in the world and not fond of learning.
Among his future plans, he would like to carry out some more work on the educational psychology of the Quran and is contemplating a translation of Iraqi’s Lam’aat. He feels, in spite of his failing health, that he has the will to undertake more work. “There were hardly any reviews of the works I published. Perhaps very few people could write about these books. But there was no comment. So I gave up thinking that there is no appreciation of serious work and people have almost given up reading,” he says without any bitterness in his voice.
He wrote some poetry in his younger days and even participated in some mushairas in Alwar. “But when I got caught in the grind of clerical work, poetry abandoned me,” he says matter-of-factly. “There was a lot of work and I would only be free from the office late at night. There was just no time. I would go to literary functions once in a while though.” He did publish a small collection of na’ats with the characteristic and intriguing title “Muflis Ki Saughat”.
“Pakistan is undergoing major cultural changes,” he says reflectively. “But the biggest mistake the government is making is adopting a policy of complete neglect of the Persian language. If we had maintained our links with Persian then our grounding in our culture, the Indian-Islamic civilisation, would have been stronger.” He is saddened by the neglect of the study of classical Persian poetry in the curricula. “It is in classical Persian and Urdu poetry that our culture, our beliefs and our views are reflected, and very beautifully so,” he says, being especially concerned by the decline in the quality of teaching. “We have made Persian into a dead language in our institutions,” he says. “The loss has been ours, and it is we who are poorer for this loss.”