Memories of a great scholar

By Zuhair Siddiqi, Viewpoint, September, 1977

geust-contDr. Wahid Mirza died in Lahore on September 5.

MOHAMMAD WAHID MIRZA was already in his late seventies, and slowly wearing away, when the country observed the 700th death anniversary of his beau ideal, Amir Khusrau, earlier this year. For nearly forty years, Dr. Mirza had been a distinguished figure in the world of Oriental learning. But outside the limited circle of Orientalists, he was not much known — thanks largely to his own retiring disposition and his inherent dislike of self-projection. During the last year of his life, however, his valuable work on Amir Khusrau brought him much wider recognition among the lay intelligentsia. In their search for authentic material on the fascinating character and amazing achievements of that great savant, writers and journalists inevitably had to turn to Dr.Wahid Mirza’s classic contribution, and many of them acknowledged him as one of the greatest living authorities on the subject. The National Book Foundation published a new edition of his Life and Works of Amir Khusrau, which has held the field as a practically indispensable work of reference ever since it was first published in 1935. And at the request of the Foundation,he produced within a few days, in spite of his old age and failing health, an English translation of Khusrau’s Khazain-ul-Futuh — a short history of the reign of Alauddin Khilji. As wider recognition, and fresh bouquets of tribute came to Dr. Mirza during the last year of his life one was reminded of the touching lines of Robert Blair :Picture-Dr-Waheed-Mirza

Behold him in the evening tide of life /By unperceived degrees he wears away, /Yet, like the Sun, seems larger at his setting “

For the present writer, it is hard to speak of the departed scholar without the first person singular. For I had known him since I was a small boy — when I didn’t even know who Amir Khusrau was, and was too young to be able to appreciate Dr. Mirza’s stature as an intellectual and a scholar. I knew him then only as a close friend of my father’s (a fellow Orientalist) and as an occasional guest in our home at Allahabad.

I can still recall my earliest impression of the man : genial, shy, soft spoken, taciturn; some-what withdrawn; a perfect gentleman. When he was amused, he would usually smile; I rarely heard him burst into laughter. I can also recall his elegant appearance, his impeccable, well-cut Western clothes, and his impressive profile. As I grew, I came to know more and more of his “gracious gifts of mellow scholarship”, of his eminence as an intellectual and a teacher, of his fascination with Amir Khusrau.

Belonging to Delhi and educated throughout at Lahore, he did his M.A. in Arabic from the University of the Punjab with great distinction, winning the coveted Arnold Medal. A Punjab Government scholarship took him to London, where he took a doctorate in Persian literature with a thesis on the life and works of Amir Khusrau. On his return home, he joined the Arabic Department of the University of Lucknow, where he soon distinguished himself and ultimately rose to be the Head of the Department of Arabic and Islamic Culture and Dean of the Faculty of Arts.

He was also a keen student of Urdu Literature and a perfect guide on matters of diction, usage and idiom. And what is not known to many of his admirers, he was, in his younger days, also an amateur sitar player and painter.With his vast erudition and keen literary insight, and the fluency and lucidity of his writing, in English as well as Urdu, he combined a rare modesty and a cheerful readiness to take second place. For instance, the very first sentence of the preface to his celebrated work on Amir Khusrau is typical of the author’s intellectual humility: “It is with full consciousness of its manifold defects that I present this work to the students of Persian literature”. That was in 1929. Nearly forty-five years later, at my last meeting with him in Lahore, I asked him about his earlier interest in music and painting. “I have had many interests and have tried my hand at several things”, he replied with characteristic modesty, “but could not achieve perfection in any sphere”.

Dr. Mirza’s migration to Lahore during the early sixties was like a home-coming, especially because he now worked as a colleague of his old teacher, Prof. Mohammad Shafi, on the editorial board of the Urdu Encyclopaedia of Islam. Presumably, it was at the instance of the old Professor, whom he greatly revered, that Dr. Mirza agreed to migrate from India. On Prof. Shafi’s death, in March 1963, Dr. Mirza wrote an article on him in The Civil and Military Gazette in which he recalled the beginnings of his association with that great Orientalist as a studentin 1919. It was an interesting sketch of Prof. Shafi’s personality and character—his stern discipline, simple living, single-minded devotion to Oriental studies and aversion to “cheap-self-advertisement and pedantic ostentation”.

The writer’s great esteem for his departed teacher was aptly reflected in the quotation from the Arab poet Mutanabbi with which the tribute closed:

I had never expected, till I saw thy bier, that I would behold Mount Razwa moving upon the hands of men.

I did not have the privilege of being one of Dr. Mirza’s pupils, but benefited greatly by his enlightening discourses on various questions relating to Islamic studies and Indo-Muslim culture during our many meetings at Lahore. And I recall with deep gratitude his valuable help in the Urdu translation of Hector Bolitho’s biography of the founder of Pakistan which I did for the Urdu Development Board more than a decade ago.

Well-versed in many tongues, Dr. Mirza had a remarkable faculty of translating from one language into another without sacrificing either accuracy of expression or the spirit of the original, and in perfect accordance with idiom and usage.

Although deeply rooted in the culture of this sub-continent, and largely Oriental in temperament, Dr. Wahid Mirza had fully imbibed the liberal spirit and scientific methods of Western scholarship. With his deep faith in the fundamental principles of Islam and his vast study of its literature and history, he combined a keen and independent mind, a refined liberalism, and a refreshing tolerance in matters of religion. The jangling discords of theological controversy and the frenzied arguments of dyspeptic pugilists grated on his sensibilities. His innate humanism, which perhaps accounts for the spell that the genius of Amir Khusrau began to cast on him at an early age, abode through life.