Annual of Urdu Studies, v. 6, 1987 p. 43.

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Shamsur Rahman Faruqi



The history of modern Urdu literature is shot through with tensions and self-doubts generated by the impact of Western ideas about the nature and uses of literature Scholars as different as Annemane Schimmel, Ralph Russell, and Muhammad Sadiq agree in the view that until almost the very end of the nineteenth century, Urdu literature was medieval in character But the term "medieval" does not tell the whole story What these scholars fail to appreciate is that classical Urdu literature was not just medieval: it was both medieval and Asian. The distinction is important. For in the West, the Greek phenomenon had centuries ago produced Plato and Aristotle—thinkers who profoundly influenced, who in fact shaped and moulded, Western literary theory The questions they posed and the issues they raised remained almost entirely unknown to literature in Asia until the spread of Western education in the last years of the nineteenth century. So "medievalism" in the context of Asian literary history—of which Indian literary history is very much a part—does not mean the same thing as Western medievalism The ideas that invaded Urdu literature from the West were not only foreign and novel: they were alien. And they introduced disruptive elements into our literary thought. For all their apparent philosophical soundness, these ideas inaugurated a long period of disequilibrium There are no signs even today that the old equilibrium will soon be restored, or that a new equilibrium is about to be achieved.

Let's take just one example. Plato raised the question: can poetry be true7 His answer was that it cannot Aristotle tried to get round Plato's arguments But all he could say was that poetry is truer than history, because history tells you only about things that happened, while poetry tells you about things that can happen. But this was cold comfort. For even if poetry can tell you about things that can happen, its claim to truth would still rest on things which were yet to be proven. Again, Plato declared poetry to be harmful to society. Because poets often couldn't explain the meaning of their own verses, they lacked rationality. And they often aroused emotions which were socially inconvenient, even dangerous. So poetry should have no place in the ideal state. Aristotle answered the first charge by saying that poets were inspired with a special kind of madness. To refute the second charge, he produced his famous theory of katharsis. These psycho-literary arguments of Aristotle's raised more problems than they solved. Even a casual study of an ancient or medieval Western treatise on literary theory will show how difficult life was for the


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