For language as vital and as spread in the
subcontinent of India and Pakistan – now also in so many parts of the
world – Urdu has had surprisingly little exposure.
Written by experts for the general
reader, this short book explains why Urdu literature continues to exert
its special fascination for those who can enjoy its beauties in the
original. Those unable to do so will now find a vivid description of
the rich heritage of poetry first created in the declining years of the
Mughal empire, which was adapted to meet the challenge posed by the
British Raj, then transformed to express the people’s aspirations
during the fight for independence and its aftermath.
This major literature at last receives
the concise and vigorous treatment in English it has long deserved.
The authors hope it will prove as enjoyable to read as it was to write.
David J. Matthews was formerly
Senior Lecturer in Urdu and Nepali at the school of Oriental and
African Studies, University of London. He has published a number of
works relating to Urdu literature, including many translations of
significant classical Urdu works. One of his major interests has been
the poetry of the Deccan .
Christopher Shackle is Professor of
the Modern Languages of South Asia at the School of Oriental and African
Studies, university of London. In addition to studies of various
aspects of Urdu Literature, he had published a number of works on the
Sikhs and their scriptures, and on the regional languages and
literatures of Pakistan.
Shahrukh Husain has long and varied
journalistic experience, and has written several books on aspects of
both European and Asian culture. Coming from a prominent South Asian
background, she maintains a particular interest in the Urdu poetry of
the twentieth century.
The language in its context
As the national language of Pakistan and as one of the official
languages of India, Urdu ranks as one of the most important languages of
the subcontinent of South Asia. Yet its status as a language and the
history of its development are in many ways paradoxical. It is
grammatically almost identical with Hindi, the national language of
India, and yet the most violent disputes arise between supporters of the
two languages. It is one of the most widely spoken languages of the
subcontinent, and has been further carried by emigration to many other
parts of the world, including the United Kingdom, and yet there is
nowhere any solid central territory where people speak nothing but Urdu.
It is for most Pakistani and Indian Muslims now one of the proudest
symbols of their cultural identity, and yet the mainstream of its
literary development extends back only some two-and-a-half centuries,
and the term ‘Urdu’ itself came to be applied to the language still more
Since any literature relies on language for its expression, we may best
begin with an overall account of the Urdu language, which will help to
explain such apparent paradoxes and related puzzles at the outset by
setting them in their historical and linguistic context. This account is
intended only as an introductory outline, since many details will be
taken up later at appropriate points in our description of the history
of Urdu literature.
Urdu has always been directly linked to the Muslims of the subcontinent,
but its origins can be dated only to a period many centuries later than
the foundation of Islam itself. In the great surge of Islam beyond the
borders of Arabia under the early Caliphs which followed the death of
the Prophet Muhammad in AD 632, the first parts of the world to come
under Muslim rule were the warring empires of Byzantium and Persia. The
energy absorbed by the annexation of these vast territories inhibited a
further expansion of the Caliphate beyond the Pyrenees in the west, or
much beyond the historic boundaries of the old Iranian empires in the
east. It is true that an expedition in AD 711 led by Muhammad bin Qasim
succeeded in subjugating Sind and the lower Panjab, but this remained
only a peripheral outpost of the Islamic world. Trade links between
Arabia and South India also resulted in the early establishment of small
Muslim communities, but the Moplah Muslims of Kerala too have
historically remained an isolated group.