No language can truly be called a refined one unless it has a comprehensive dictionary, a well-written grammar and an authentic encyclopaedia.
As for Urdu, there have always been visionaries who knew of these prerequisites. Moulvi Abdul Haq, rightly known as Baba-i-Urdu, was one such visionary. He published Qavaid-i-Urdu, or a grammar of Urdu, in 1914 that was written with quite a different perspective, unlike the works of his predecessors who had tried to write Urdu grammar on the lines of Persian and Arabic grammar. Even though Farhang-i-Asifya had been published in four volumes, Abdul Haq began compiling a more comprehensive dictionary of Urdu, which is now nearing completion under the aegis of the Urdu Dictionary Board.
What Urdu lacked was an authentic encyclopaedia. Lahore’s Oriental College’s principal Prof Dr Moulvi Muhammad Shafi envisioned a comprehensive Islamic encyclopaedia in Urdu. He had before him the famous Encyclopaedia of Islam, published in Leiden, the Netherlands, as a model as it was considered the most authentic and most comprehensive one and was based on research work published in European languages as well as Arabic, Persian and Turkish.
Allama Iqbal, too, when asked for his advice by the Turkish authorities, had suggested that they benefit from Leiden’s Encyclopaedia of Islam for compiling an encyclopaedia in the Turkish language. In 1940, Dr Shafi asked his student Dr Syed Abdullah, then a lecturer at the Oriental College, to chalk out a plan. But, alas, the University of Punjab did not approve it, and the plan was shelved.
Syed Abdullah was a resilient soldier of Urdu and had been fighting for its cause for many years. After 1947, he realised that the time for the promotion and implementation of Urdu in every walk of life had arrived since Pakistan had come into being. He launched a massive campaign to win a status for Urdu in Pakistan that it deserved as the national language and a language that had played a vital role in the creation of the country.
His boisterous programme included running a movement for the approval of demands, such as Urdu being made the official language, Urdu being declared a medium of instruction, being declared a compulsory subject up to the intermediate level, and classes of MA in Urdu being taught.
In March 1948, he organised Pakistan’s first Urdu conference at Punjab University. The conference, attended by such luminaries as Moulvi Abdul Haq and Sardar Abdur Rub Nishtar, resolved that, among other things, a comprehensive Urdu encyclopaedia of Islam be compiled and published. With a nod from then Vice-Chancellor Dr Umer Hayat Malik, Syed Abdullah presented a plan for such an encyclopaedia, which was approved by the university and Abdullah was made the convener of the committee that decided Dr Shafi would be the president and chief editor of the project.
After detailed discussions, it was decided that though the encyclopaedia would be modelled on the Leiden-published encyclopaedia and would be a sort of Urdu translation of the work, it would be much more comprehensive as it would include exhaustive articles on the topics either ignored or inadequately covered in the original work.
The committee decided to get — on the basis of research — such material rewritten and corrected that carried misconceptions about the beliefs or history of Islam or in which some other errors had crept in. It also decided to get new articles written, especially on topics related to the Islamic history of the subcontinent, and to enrich the footnotes with additional information and citing new sources of research. Work on the project began in 1950.
Prof Dr Shafi died in 1963. Syed Abdullah was asked, in 1966, to fill in as president and chief editor, which he did, as he had already taken premature retirement from the Oriental College. When Dr Abdullah took over, hardly three volumes of the encyclopaedia had been published and till his death in 1986, 22 of the 23 volumes had appeared.
During his 20-year tenure, he not only oversaw the compilation, editing and publishing of 20 volumes, but himself contributed many articles and wrote explanatory notes to many articles, especially the ones related to the literature of Urdu, Arabic and Persian. Finally, the last volume appeared in 1991 and a one-volume shorter version was published in 1997.
Punjab University’s Urdu Encyclopaedia of Islam is among the works the entire Pakistani nation should be proud of. It has earned accolades of the scholars of Urdu from all over the world. A few years back when Dr Khaliq Anjum, Secretary of Anjuman Taraqqi-i-Urdu Hind, Delhi, visited Pakistan, he said that after partition two works had been published in Pakistan that were the pride of the entire Urdu world: one is the Urdu Dictionary Board’s dictionary on historical principles and the other is Punjab University’s Urdu Encyclopaedia of Islam.
And While Dr Abdullah was instrumental in the encyclopaedia project, he had been on the UDB’s board of governors from its inception in 1958 till the publication of the first volume in 1977, helping it with his invaluable expertise and insight.
Dr Syed Abdullah’s other great feat is his contribution to the 19-volume Tareekh-i-adabiyaat-i-Musalmaanan-i-Pakistan-o-Hind, or the literary history of the Muslims of the subcontinent. He wrote several articles for volumes concerning the history of Urdu and Persian literature and planned and edited the volumes related to Arabic literature as he enjoyed the distinction of having taught the three languages and their literatures at the university level, not to mention his English articles that he regularly contributed to newspapers on issues related to Urdu.
One of the most prominent features of Dr Syed Abdullah’s life, which began on April 5, 1906, in a remote and obscure village named Mangloor in the district of Mansehra, NWFP, was his long battle for securing a respectable pedestal for Urdu. Right from the beginning till he breathed his last on August 14, 1986, Dr Syed Abdullah relentlessly fought for Urdu’s cause.
Be it greater issues such as Urdu’s status as official language and saving Urdu’s script, or whether it was apparently minor irritants such as signboards on shops written in English and numerals on the pages of books, Syed Abdullah was a roaring lion that spared no enemy of Urdu’s. But when it came to his personal life, he was all love and forgiveness, even for his enemies.
This boy from a mountainous village went on to do his master’s both in Persian and Arabic before earning a doctorate, but not before joining the Khilafat Movement and going to Aligarh, where he met Maulana Muhammad Ali Jauhar. In 1921, Syed Abdullah was arrested for taking part in the Khilafat Movement and had to spend six months behind bars. Back in Lahore, he resumed his education in mosques, learning Arabic from scholars such as Maulana Ahmed Ali. Later, at the Oriental College, he was taught by Allama Abdul Aziz Memon.
Dr Syed Abdullah wrote some 30 books. He edited several books on classical Persian and Urdu literature in addition to several hundred articles and reviews, including many by pseudonyms. For want of space I cannot mention his other services that he rendered while heading institutes such as the Urdu Academy and the Anjuman Taraqqi-i-Urdu’s Lahore chapter. Deeply and emotionally attached to Urdu, Syed sahib even took out processions to persuade shopkeepers to get the signboards on their shops written in Urdu.
After Moulvi Abdul Haq, Dr Syed Abdullah was the only person who spent every day of his life fighting and writing for Urdu. He was a true successor to Baba-i-Urdu and that is why many call him Baba-i-Urdu Sani (or the second).