Urdu Language, Literature, and Poetry

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Urdu is a language whose exceptionally complex linguistic and cultural history reflects the special position of Islam in the Indian subcontinent of South Asia. While linguistically related to Bengali, Hindi, Punjabi, and the other languages of the Indo-Aryan family (whose classical representative is Sanskrit), Urdu is distinguished by the very high proportion of Perso-Arabic elements in its vocabulary. This Islamic cultural orientation is also reflected in its written form, which uses the Perso-Arabic script with appropriate modifications to mark distinctive Indic features such as retroflex and aspirated consonants.

While its origins elude precise definition, Urdu clearly began in medieval times from a mixture of the local Indian dialects of the Delhi region with the Persian spoken by the Muslim conquerors whose armies rapidly spread the new lingua franca across the subcontinent. Since Persian continued to be the preferred administrative and cultural language of the Delhi sultanate and the Mughal empire, it was only with the collapse of unitary Muslim political authority in the eighteenth century that Urdu came to be cultivated in northern India as a literary language for a courtly poetry that constitutes the classical heritage of Urdu literature.

From the early nineteenth century, when British colonial rule was extended across northern India, Urdu came increasingly to be used also as a written prose language. British policy itself favored the development of Urdu as an official bureaucratic medium, and Muslim writers took ample advantage of the opportunities provided by the colonial state for the production of textbooks, newspapers, and very varied prose writings. It is from this early modern period, when British India was the scene of the most intense debates about the definition of Islam in the modern world, that Urdu became a language of Islamic expression second only in international importance to Arabic.

Throughout the twentieth century Urdu successfully retained this role as an Islamic language while also developing as the medium of a modern secular literature much influenced by English. As an administrative and educational language, however, Urdu has progressively lost ground to modern standard Hindi, the rival Sanskritized language promoted as a replacement for Urdu by Hindu nationalists. Since independence from British rule in 1947, Urdu has thus increasingly become marginalized in its Indian homeland and identified with Pakistan. Although spoken there as a mother tongue only by Muslim immigrants from India and their descendants, Urdu is the official language of Pakistan, where languages like Punjabi, Sindhi, or Pashto have limited regional status only. As such, Urdu has been carried by the Pakistani diaspora to many other parts of the world, including the Middle East, Europe, and North America.

Classical Urdu Poetry

Persian poetry was for many centuries one of the major arts to be cultivated across the eastern Islamic world. The patronage of the great Mughal emperors encouraged a further development of Persian poetry in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century India by both immigrant and native-born poets. While their works were formally cast in the long established traditional poetic genres, some novelty of expression came from their development of the new baroque manner called the "Indian style" (sabk-e hindi).

The eighteenth-century switch from Persian to Urdu as the preferred language of courtly poetry in northern India had been linguistically foreshadowed by the preclassical Urdu poetry produced in the southern Muslim kingdoms of the Deccan. But the living tradition of classical Urdu poetry is identified with the period when the empire had collapsed under the twin pressures of external invasions and internal struggles into several successor states, notably the court of the Navvab-Vazirs of Avadh in Lucknow and that of the politically shadowy later Mughals in Delhi, both of which were maintained as puppet kingdoms by the British until the mid-nineteenth century.

The carefully cultivated conscious rivalry between the "schools" of Delhi and Lucknow now seems less significant than the common features of classical Urdu poetry, which is both the direct heir to the immense artistic heritage of Persian poetry (itself now linguistically inaccessible to most South Asian Muslims) and the chief vehicle for the public and private literary expression of an elite society facing major political and cultural challenges. Most of the poetic genres are of the well-known Persian types, and are similarly based on rhyming verses composed in the usual Persian meters, typically ending with the incorporation of the poet's pen name (takhallus) in the final signature verse. By far the most popular genre is the ghazal, the ubiquitous short lyric whose cultivated formal rhetoric readily allows its expressions of private feeling to achieve widespread public outreach through recitation and musical performance as well as written dissemination. The two great classical masters of the Urdu ghazal are generally acknowledged to be the very prolific Mir Taqi Mir (c.1722–1810), who is known for the poignancy of his direct expression of the sufferings of love, and the Delhi poet Ghalib (1797–1869), whose slim collection (divan) of ghazals is an iconic masterpiece combining refinement of sentiment with the ironic intellectualism of the "Indian style."

Of the longer public genres of Persian poetry, the narrative masnavi was more successfully cultivated in Urdu during its pre-classical phase in the Deccan. Although Mir himself wrote a number of striking short masnavis on contemporary romantic subjects, it is his versatile and innovative contemporary Sauda (1713–1781) whose poetry addresses the greatest variety of public themes, using the formal ode (qasida) as well as various strophic forms to compose not only elaborately rhetorical eulogies and satires but also a number of striking elegies on the cultural and political devastation of Delhi in the mid-eighteenth century. In the qasida Sauda is later matched only by Zauq (1790–1854), the great rival of Ghalib for the favor of Bahadur Shah II Zafar (1775–1862), the last Mogul "emperor" whose sad fate at the hands of the British has helped to assure a special status for his own elegiac ghazals.

While the Lucknow poets are in general considered less notable for their thematic range than for their cultivation of a formal Persianizing elegance, the Shi˓a allegiance of the rulers of the Avadh kingdom encouraged the magnificent flowering of the strophic marsiyya, the innovative Urdu genre that deployed the full resources of the "Indian style" for the elegiac celebration of the sufferings of Karbala celebrated in the annual rituals of Muharram, and whose two great masters are Anis (1801–1874) and Dabir (1803–1875).

Modern Urdu Literature

While the transition from the classical to the modern period can be sharply marked by the annexation of Avadh by the British in 1856 and the destruction of much of Delhi that followed their ruthless suppression of the Great Revolt of 1857, there was also naturally much overlap between the two. Under the patronage of other Indian Muslim rulers, some poets were able to continue working in the classical style, like Ghalib's younger relative Dagh (1831–1905) who perfected a mastery of the light ghazal designed for singing by courtesan artistes.

On the other hand, many of the developments most characteristic of later nineteenth-century Urdu literature such as the increasing importance of prose and of explicitly Islamic writing had already begun before 1857, not least because of the emergence of an Urdu publishing industry based on the lithographic reproduction of professionally calligraphed texts. It was through this means that a wider public was found, for instance, for such early masterpieces of Urdu prose as Ghalib's elegantly informal letters.

It was, however, after the cultural watershed of 1857, when the Muslims of India had to confront the reality of the definitive loss of their political power, that the new trends associated with the early modernity of the colonial period became firmly established. Some writers of the later nineteenth century were provoked into formulating new styles of literary response to the acute sense of cultural loss caused by the political changes of the period. Two of the most notable of these were Muhammad Husain Azad (1834–1910), whose Ab-e Hayat (1881) is a pioneering history of Urdu poetry lovingly reconstructed around his revered master Zauq, and the maverick Muhammad Hadi Rusva (1858–1931), whose Umrao Jan Ada (1899) remains the most appealing of Urdu novels with its wonderful evocation of the life of a courtesan in the old Lucknow.

For other writers of the period, new kinds of Islamic ideology were as important as the new genres opened up by the example of English, which now increasingly came to supplant Persian as the model for Urdu prose styles and genres. This was particularly the case with the talented group of writers associated with the Aligarh movement inspired by the modernist interpretation of Islam promulgated by the great reformer Sir Sayyid Ahmad Khan (1818–1898), himself a vigorous and prolific exponent of a forcefully strippeddown Urdu prose style. The leading poet of the Aligarh movement was Altaf Husain Hali (1837–1914), whose long Musaddas of 1879 (revised in 1886) is the greatest poem of the period. Inspired by what he had read of Wordsworth's poetic ideals, Hali used a quite new style, that he called "natural poetry" and that consciously dispensed with most of the familiar Persianizing rhetoric, first to evoke the lost glories of Islam under the Arabs, then to embark on a savage critique of the failings of contemporary Islam in India. In prose, a similarly reformist message is conveyed with greater stylistic subtlety, if smaller artistic impact, in the moralistic novels of Nazir Ahmad (1836–1912).

Poetry, however, continued to be the favored medium of expression among the next generation of Urdu writers, which is dominated by Muhammad Iqbal (1879–1938). It was Iqbal's achievement to combine his own uplifting call for a Muslim renascence, looking to contemporary European philosophy as well as to an individual reinterpretation of certain Sufi ideas, with a hugely powerful poetic voice that drew anew upon the full resources of a rich Persian vocabulary to reinvigorate Urdu poetic diction after the successful challenge of Hali's "natural poetry" had undermined the appeal of traditional styles. A grandiloquent master both of the philosophical ghazal and of the new kind of thematic poem (called nazm in Urdu), Iqbal is rightly remembered in South Asia for his Urdu poetry rather than the longer Persian masnavis on which his international reputation tends to be based. Although Iqbal continues to be the object of an inflated official cult in Pakistan as the ideological founder of the nation, his power directly to inspire, whether as a thinker or as a poet, has long been supplanted by the numerous writers of very different types who have subsequently flourished in Urdu.

As an Islamic ideologue, the most influential Urdu prose writer of the later twentieth century was certainly Sayyid Abu l-A˓la˒ Maududi (1903–1979), the founder of the Jama˓at e Islami, while the Urdu poetry of the post-Iqbalian period came quickly to be dominated by Faiz Ahmad Faiz (1911–1984), whose combination of an idealistic socialism with a unique ability to intermingle the style of English romantic poetry with graceful references of Ghalib has ensured his continuing ability to inspire new generations of poetic followers in the ghazal and the nazm.

Modern Urdu narrative prose is less ambiguously based on the example of English genres and styles. While a few novelists, notably Qurratulain Haidar (b. 1928) and ˓Abdullah Husain (b. 1936), have been able to establish serious reputations on the basis of major works, it is the short story that has generally proved to be the most successful genre. Following on the earlier example of the Urdu-Hindi writer Prem Chand (1880–1936), whose short fiction was inspired by Gandhian ideals, the new school of self-proclaimed Progressive Writers that emerged in the 1930s (and with which Faiz was associated) looked rather to socialist realism. By far the most successful of these short-story writers was Sa˓adat Hasan Manto (1912–1955), some of whose most memorable stories were inspired by the tragedies of the Partition of 1947, and his overall achievement in the genre has yet to be fully matched by later writers in Pakistan. But several memorable collections of short stories, variously combining genuinely modernist formal experimentation with troubled articulations of a modern Pakistani Muslim cultural identity, have been produced by such leading exponents as the emigre Intizar Husain (b. 1933) with his continual reflections on the loss of an Indian Shi˓i cultural heritage, or Mazhar ul Islam (b. 1949) with his attempts to integrate the local Sufi heritage embodied in the regional languages of Pakistan with a bleakly romantic individualism.

See alsoPakistan, Islamic Republic of ; South Asia, Islam in ; South Asian Culture and Islam .


Faiz, Faiz Ahmad. Poems by Faiz. Translated by Victor G. Kiernan. London: Allen and Unwin, 1971.

Matthews, D. J.; Shackle, C.; and Husain, Shahrukh. UrduLiterature. London: Urdu Markaz, 1985.

Matthews, D. J., trans. and ed. Iqbal: A Selection of the UrduVerse. London: School of Oriental and African Studies, 1993.

Russell, Ralph, and Islam, Khurshidul. Three Mughal Poets. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1968.

Russell, Ralph, and Islam, Khurshidul. Ghalib, 1797–1869, Vol. I: Life and Letters. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1969.

Sadiq, Muhammad. A History of Urdu Literature, 2d ed. New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1984.

Christopher Shackle

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