Sufi intellectual Zia Shakeb will be missed in India and abroad

Image may contain: Mir Ayoob Ali Khan, night, glasses and close-up
Mir Ayoob Ali Khan

Ziauddin Ahmad Shakeb. A multifaceted Sufi who allowed me to see the world through his eyes, his understanding and experiences. It was a fascinating journey spread over three decades.

I first met him in Jeddah in early 1990s. One day, Maslehuddin Saadi saheb, a litterateur and a Sufi, asked me to join him in meeting a friend of his who had flown in from London. Shakeb saheb was staying at his daughter’s place.  He was wearing a white kurta-pyjama, had a salt and pepper beard and closely trimmed moustache. The smile on his face reflected contentment.  After the initial formalities, Saadi saheb asked him to recite some poetry. Shakeb saheb politely turned down the request saying that he has left writing poetry long time ago.  ‘Let’s talk about something else,’ he said.  And I turned into a listener while the two learned men spoke on a variety of subjects including Urdu literature. I found him an interesting speaker who knew where to pepper his talk with wisdom and where to make it light by resorting to humour. Along with his words, his smile did the trick.

I did not get to meet him for the next 10 years. I had returned to Hyderabad from my long stint with Saudi Gazette in 1998 and began writing for Deccan Chronicle the following year. I came to know in 2000 that Shakeb saheb is in the town essentially to meet his mother and other relatives. I visited him a few times and got to know the ‘uncommon’ scholar a little bit more. Soon I realised that I have begun to appreciate his line of thinking and also venerate the gentleman. I also became aware that Shakeb saheb was not too well versed with the current affairs which were my areas of interest.  During one such series of initial rendezvous he told me about the works he has been doing for a variety of organisations including the University of London.   From those meetings I discovered one very interesting episode from his life as a researcher and decided to discuss those subjects with my editor Jayanti.  She was excited and agreed that we should write about it. 

MS Education Academy

Pujaris preserve copies of Holy Quran

The story belonged to the turbulent times of recent Indian history—the partition days. Massive communal carnage had taken place on both sides of the border. At that point of horrible times the Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs were no more brothers, no more compatriots. They thirsted for each other’s blood.

Jayanti decided to carry the story on page one.  Shakeb saheb Shakeb saheb’s research had brought him back to India from Britain. He was searching for some old documents for his project. His work took him to Varanasi (Banaras). He went to the biggest temple in the town and sought permission from the head Pujari whether he could have a look at the old documents.  The Pujari received him with warmth and respect and allowed him the entry to the place where old documents were placed.  During his search he found copies of the Quran in Arabic placed in the upper shelf of the library. Wondering what the copies of the Quran doing there, he sat down with the priest. The priest said during the partition mayhem the Muslims were leaving their villages and running away to Pakistan.  During those tension filled moments some of the Muslims came to him and his colleagues and said they want to hand over some copies of the Quran in custody of the temple. The priests were shocked at the offer at first but being persons of religious dispositions they accepted the responsibility. They not only decided to preserve those copies but also placed them alongside the copies of their own scriptures. 

Shakeb saheb, as I said earlier, was a man of many facets.  In his younger days he left Ahle Hadees school of Islamic thought and moved towards Sufism.  That was scandalous. His folks were not too happy that he is moving with mystics whom they believed had left the ‘right path’ of their ancestral faith.

Meeting Annemarie Schimmel 

In 1970s, there came a scholar of Islam from Germany to Hyderabad. She was Annemarie Schimmel, a researcher and writer.  She had extensively written on Sufi dimension of Islam as well as Allama Iqbal, the poet who wrote Sare Jahan Say Achcha Hindustan Hamara.

At that point of time, Shakeb saheb was still in the city. Since the interests of the two scholars matched, they began talking on a variety of subjects, especially Sufism. They became good friends. Shakeb saheb accompanied her to various hospices in and around Hyderabad.  He used to tell that his visit with her to Bidar, about 150 km from Hyderabad, was most memorable.

When she died in 2003 at the ripe age of 81, Sahkeb saheb was in Hyderabad. He organised a condolence meeting at Idara Adabityat-e Urdu, Punjagutta.  Shakeb saheb was trying to put his best behind this function.  He wanted people who were well versed in various languages to come on one stage.  His idea was that each of one of them would recite something in praise of God from the language they knew the best. This would be a great tribute to the multilingual scholar whom he believed had accepted Islam as her way of life. I chipped in with two persons who paid tributes in Turkish and Persian languages.  Shakeb saheb had roped in a professor of English from Osmania University who sang hymn in Latin.  There were also those who spoke in Arabic and Urdu. There was no moderator for the ceremony. There were no speeches.  Each participant has been assigned his turn. As the session progressed, each one of them rose from his seat, went in front of the small audience and recited his chosen verses.

All the time I could see a sombre Shakeb saheb listening intently to those who he had sequenced to go on to the stage.  It was an awe-inspiring experience for me the kind of which I had never witnessed.

Meeting a Brahmin

There was a journalist friend, an orthodox Brahmin by faith, who wished to sit down with Shakeb saheb and seek answers to some question about the mysterious ways of God. When I arranged the meeting she came along with her husband, a senior officer in the State government, and sat down with him for over two hours. The couple was impressed how Shakeb saheb explained divinity and the ways to approach it.

There was a senior female police officer of Leftist orientation.  She said she would also like to meet Shakeb saheb. She and her social activist friend sat down with Shakeb saheb for a long time merely to get a peep into mysticism and Urdu poetry.

A man of many languages

While in London, he rubbed shoulders with great Urdu poets such as Faiz Ahmad Faiz and indulged in discussion on the ‘correct’ usage of Urdu in his poetry.  Faiz saheb did not agree with him totally but said he had an interesting point.

His Deccani was superb.  The last book he edited in Hyderabad was a collection of poems by the last Sultan of the Kingdom of Golconda Abul Hasan Tanasha. He gave me a copy of that book. His Persian, both spoken and written, was flawless.  He drew his source material from Persian, both old and new. 

His understanding of art and artefacts was matchless. He served as consultant to the UK based Sotheby for several years.  Even while spending time in Hyderabad the artefacts managers would send him samples of the material they had received for auctioning for his expert comments.

His friends and disciples in Hyderabad are many.  I remember him spending time with Moghni Tabassum saheb at his place in Punjagutta where humour writer Mujhtaba Hussain, short story writer Baig Ehsas and poet Ali Zaheer would be there. The tradition of people of ideas sitting together and exchanged views had been kept alive.  Shakeb saheb enjoyed those moments.

India will miss his accomplished son and I my murshid with whom I dared to disagree occasionally. 

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