Dr. Daud Rahbar-Tribute to a great scholar and writer

Excluded genius

Ahmad Khan  TFT Issue: 10 Jan 2014 TheFridaytimes.com

Ahmed Khan pays tribute to the recently deceased Daud Rahbar, the great scholar and writer who was exiled from Pakistan for speaking his mind


Excluded genius

Daud Rahbar

This year, on 31 December 2013, as Zia Mohyeddin read from the letters written to him by his cousin, Daud Rahbar, at Lahore’s Ali auditorium, he cried. The audience, gone from curiosity to reverence listening to him over the past quarter century, was with him all the way, celebrating a maverick genius that orthodoxy is spiritually too crippled to forgive. Two assessments of Rahbar, one by Intizar Hussain and the other by Zia himself, were the mainstay of the evening’s enjoyment, matching Rahbar’s own inventive prose. Zia’s reading was masterly as usual, this time aesthetically enriched by his personal loss.

Dr Muhammad Daud Rahbar, 86, died on 5 October 2013, in a nursing home in Deerfield Beach, Florida, USA, after 64 years in exile from Pakistan. In 1958, he was blackballed in a conference in Lahore for saying that the doctrine of “abrogation” in the Holy Quran is based on the “partial historicity” of scripture. He is also known in Pakistan as a maverick-intellectual and first cousin of actor-writer, Zia Mohyeddin. After being thus stigmatised in Pakistan, Rahbar converted to Christianity and taught at Hartford Seminary (Connecticut) and Boston University (Massachusetts) in his new home, the United States.

Rahbar graduated from the Government College, Lahore, with an MA in Arabic Literature in 1947, received the McLeod Research Scholarship and, in 1949, went to Cambridge University where he obtained a PhD for his dissertation on The Ethical Doctrine of the Quran.

Government College Lahore – 1947

Government College Lahore – 1947

On January 2, 1958, Rahbar presented a paper to the International Islamic Colloquium in Lahore. Rahbar’s paper, entitled “The Challenge of Muslim Ideas and Social Values to Muslim Society” riled scholars in authority to such an extent that he was asked to leave. Reading the paper today, one can’t find anything offensive enough in it to deserve the kind of treatment Rahbar received. He had apparently hinted at sections of the scripture being “historical” rather than “eternal”.

tft-48-p-16-cLater, Rahbar’s paper was “amended” in light of the organisers’ objections; but the damage was done. The following year a converted Rahbar started lecturing and studying at the Hartford Seminary Foundation in Hartford, Connecticut. He was initially a visiting professor of Urdu and Pakistan Studies but was later tenured as full professor from 1962 to 1966. He moved from the seminary to the University of Wisconsin (Madison) where he taught courses in the Department of Indian Studies for two years. In 1968 he joined Boston University’s faculty where he initially taught in the School of Theology and, from 1975 onwards in the Department of Religion at BU’s College of Liberal Arts. He retired in 1991.

Rahbar went on record as saying he was baptised as a Christian by a Protestant minister in Ankara in July 1959. He insisted his conversion was not a result of the 1958 Colloquium but was “more closely related to the memories of Partition of India and the current environment in Turkey” and that the “categorical mercy” of the New Testament and the “Christian world” had rescued him from pessimism.

From his many books, probably the best book titled “Culture Kay Ruhani Anasir” (1998), a study of religions in South Asia, depicts him as a humanist with extremely eclectic and tolerant views. He wrote an Urdu style rarely seen in a literary environment of stilted formalism.

Nobody knew about Rahbar back home till 1990 when Zia Mohyeddin began giving his annual December readings in Lahore, selecting purple patches from his cousin’s letters. Then Daud Rahbar arrived in Lahore in 1993. It seemed Zia had persuaded him to make his visit public. He gave a lecture on Toynbee at the Al-Hamra. His lecture was an extraordinary experience. Like Zia, he had prepared it to the last gesture, even to the bit of “kathak” he did on the stage. I had read his series “Culture Kay Ruhani Anasir” in Jamil Jalibi’s journal “Naya Daur” and was convinced that his was the best style I had read in Urdu.Daud Rahbar could teach Arabic and Persian but when he wrote Urdu he had the conversational rhythm of “Fasana-e-Azad” and “Talism-e-Hoshruba”, the story-telling Urdu classics; he rescued Urdu from the gravity of Arabic by using Hindi with great ease; his Sanskrit was as good as his Arabic and Persian. He had placed himself stylistically within the literary milieu that existed in Delhi and Lucknow in the middle of the 19th century.
Rahbar was greatly influenced by Allama Iqbal’s assertion that the Holy Quran is inductive rather than abstract

Writing to Hameed Nasim, he admits to the fact that his prose carries the conversational accent of his father, Muhammad Iqbal, an Aligarh graduate who loved Urdu and retired as principal of Lahore’s Oriental College. His PhD thesis on Firdausi itself is a classic of research. I learned from his book that the Parsi name Godrej is actually Godarz, the other big wrestler in Iran after Rustam in Shahnama.

There are some nuggets in his book of memories “Paraganda-Taba Log” (2000) – describing him as “zanjeer-shikan” (breaker of chains) – that are worth revisiting. In 1949, with the money inherited by him, Rahbar went to Cambridge, his father’s alma mater, for higher studies. At Cambridge, Prof Arberry thought that Rahbar found it difficult to marshal scholarly sources for his doctoral work. Arberry was a workaholic and like Toynbee worked for the intelligence service, Rahbar noted. When he submitted his program for the study of the Quran, Arberry was skeptical about it.
He rescued Urdu from the gravity of Arabic

Rahbar was greatly influenced by Allama Iqbal’s assertion in his “Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam” that the Quran is “anti-classical”, in other words, inductive (scientific) rather than abstract (deductive) in the Greek tradition adopted by Muslim theologians. This was to inform the Islamic scholarship of Rahbar all his life. He thought that the dispositional Names of Allah referred to the historical aspects of the Quran while the non-dispositional Names were basic to its Eternal message.

At Cambridge, his contemporaries were Jamil Nishtar (Governor of Punjab, Sardar Abdur Rab Nishtar, had asked Rahbar to look after his son); Allama Iqbal’s son, Javid Iqbal (“a coveted bachelor, very much the centre of attention of women…a former champion of tango of a club in Lahore…waltzed on the floor of International Club at Cambridge with ease” while Rahbar’s own attempts at learning the dance had come to grief); Ijaz Batalvi, his Model Town acquaintance whose contacts at the BBC got Rahbar in touch with Siddiq Ahmad Siddiqui, Ghulam Abbas and Hafeez Javed; Abdus Salam (“a brilliant and much admired student of mathematics who was well versed in literature”); and Ameer Imam, the “most civilised young Muslim” son of Raja Sahib of Mehmudabad.

Nobody knew about Rahbar back home till 1990 when Zia Mohyeddin began giving his annual December readings in Lahore

While Professors Arberry and Levy remained formal and restrained in the pure British tradition, Prof Alfred Guillaume (translator of Ibn Ishaq and Rahbar’s external examiner from London) showed a lot of enthusiasm for his thesis.

On his return to Lahore, Rahbar’s Cambridge doctorate qualified him for no more than the post of part-time lecturer in the Department of Islamics at the Punjab University and part-time translator in the Department of the Urdu Encyclopedia of Islam.

In 1954, his straitened circumstances inclined him to accept the post of Senior Teaching Fellow at the McGill University in Canada. In 1956, the government decided to appoint Daud Rahbar to the chair of Urdu and Pakistan Studies at Ankara University. Rahbar noted that this appointment was owed to America’s NATO program of bringing a secular Turkey close to an Islamic Pakistan. He remained at this post from 1956 to 1959.

The Hartford Seminary Foundation at Connecticut

The Hartford Seminary Foundation at Connecticut

Rahbar’s memories of Ankara have been recorded by him, mixing irony with scholarly insight. At the Department of Islamics of the Ankara University, Prof Annemarie Schimmel had also begun teaching Islamic Fine Arts the same year. Pakistan’s ambassador Mian Bashir Ahmad, known for his editorship of the Lahore journal Humayun, had to return to Pakistan after Turkey protested against his visiting the Muslim religious shrines in Turkey.

Daud Rahbar, faced with restrictions on religious discussion, was at a loss about how to talk to his Ankara classes about Pakistan without referring to the great spiritual founders of its polity: Sheikh Ahmad Sirhindi, Shah Waliullah, Syed Ahmad Barelvi, Abul Kalam Azad and Allama Muhammad Iqbal, and often wondered why he was sent to Ankara at all.

From his book of letters “Salam-o-Payam” I have learnt one great lesson that has changed my attitude to life: “To respect one’s contemporaries and their achievements in the intellectual world, to tolerate with patience the opposition of those who convert polemic into personal rivalry, and to keep an open mind to all ways of living life.” For me, he is more than just an extraordinary son of Islam; he is the most enlightened citizen of the world that I have personally known.


1 Comment

– See more at: http://www.thefridaytimes.com/tft/excluded-genius/#sthash.hCLGBWdk.dpuf

Categories: Americas, United States

Leave a Reply