Popular Urdu fiction has had an old tradition of historic novels. Since the early period of Urdu literature, writers have used historic settings as background for their novels and immensely entertained their readers. One of the oldest in Urdu, this tradition is still alive.

Naseem Hijazi is rightfully considered the greatest novelist in the genre of historic novel. His real name was Sharif Hussain. He was born in the year 1914 in the village of Sujanpur, near Dhariwal, in East Punjab. He grew up in a conservative environment where reading or writing novels was considered something below good morals. His earlier drafts were torn away by his father. Sharif Hussain chose Islamic history as inspiration for his fiction and took the pen name Naseem Hijazi which indicated his emotional affiliation with Hijaz, the holy land of Mecca and Medina. His first novel Daastan-e-Mujahid came out in 1944. In years to come he would write one great historic novel after the other and earn great fame. A number of movies and plays in Pakistan were also based on Naseem Hijazi’s novels.    

Hijazi’s major area of endeavor was Islamic history. His novels told the fascinating tales of Islamic warriors with great character and dedication to their cause scaling the length and breadth of earth, crushing great empires under their horse’s hooves and raising the flag of Islam in the lands of unbelievers. Taking the hand of Hijazi’s marvelous imagination, his readers would explore the fascinating worlds now lost in the sands of time. However, there has been serious criticism on Naseem Hijazi’s novels regarding distortion of historical facts and a potentially problematic ideology working behind his stories.         

More than half a dozen novels by Naseem Hijazi were based on different periods of Indian subcontinent’s history. Insan aur Devta (Man and God), one of his earliest novels is a critique on the cruel divisions of caste system in Hindu society. One cast is given an undue privileged status and another suffers from undeserved discrimination and isolation. Intermingling of casts is nothing short of a sin. The novel’s characters break the boundaries of caste for the sake of love. Muhammad Bin Qasim is the story of the Arab conquest of Sindh. It starts with a glimpse of friendly trade relations between Muslim traders and the nobility and royalty of the Malabar region and moves on to tell the fascinating tale of politics and intrigue at the Umayyad court at Damascus, Arab conquest of Sindh, the victory and painful end of young conqueror Muhammad Bin Qasim. Aakhri Maarka (The Last Battle) glorifies Mahmud Ghaznavi as a great soldier of Islam who attacked India seventeen times and desecrated the great temple at Somnath. Muazzam Ali and its sequel Aur Talwar Toot Gayi (And the Sword Fell) were set against the backdrop of historic struggle of the state of Maysore against British colonization of India. The story concludes with a moving account of the battle of Siringapattam and Tipu Sultan’s death. It hails Tipu as a great warrior and a martyr. Khaak aur Khoon (Dirt and Blood) is one of Naseem Hijazi’s most popular novels. It tells the story of Muslims of East Punjab who suffered betrayal, humiliation, dishonor, death and exile from their homeland on the hands of their Hindu and Sikh neighbors during the turbulent days of partition. Pardesi Darakht (Foreign Trees) and Gumshuda Qaaflay (Lost Caravans) are based on Hijazi’s personal memories and tragedies of partition.            

Naseem Hijazi also wrote some four novels on the tragic decline of Moorish Spain; most popular of them was Shaheen (The Eagle). By 15th century, Muslim royal houses who had been ruling Spain for eight hundred years have lost nearly entire peninsula to the Christian forces. Granada, the last Muslim stronghold is surrounded by conspiracies. Losing all hope in their king, a group of young men hide in the mountains and start a guerilla war against occupying Christian forces. Their leader known as Shaheen (The Eagle) is a much feared and considered an almost mythical character. Andheri Raat ke Musafir (Travelers of a Dark Night) and its sequel Kaleesa aur Aag (Church and the Fire) are based on the fall of Granada and Spanish inquisition which followed.    

Other notable Naseem Hijazi titles were Kaiser o Kasra (Kings of Rome and Persia) based on Muslim conquests of Byzantine and Persian empires, Aakhri Chataan (The Final Rock) based on 13th century Mongolian invasion of Turkestan and Iraq and Qaafla e Hijaz (The Caravan of Hijaz) which tells the story of the time of advent of Islam.

Naseem Hijazi also wrote satire. Poras ke Hathi (Porus’ Elephants) was written in the backdrop of 1965 war. It ridicules India’s attack on Pakistan, Indian Prime Minister and his cabinet of the time. Saqafat ki Talash (In Search of Culture) mocks those Pakistanis who are confused about their culture. Safaid Jazeera (The White Island) is a satirical commentary on the political events of 1958. It portrays President Iskander Mirza as an unworthy leader and shows General Ayub Khan in a positive light who had to “burden” himself with the running of country because no one else could.

Naseem Hijazi was a master of bringing a historical setting to life and make it seem like a mirror image of reality. He was a truly gifted storyteller. Creating popular fiction out of something as dry as history is not something every writer can do. He had an amazing imagination and his narrative was so strong that there was never a dull moment in his novels. Another strong feature of Hijazi’s fiction was his absolutely flawless characterization. He would create a perfect character of a Punjabi villager or a sub caste Hindu and an Umayyad Sultan with equal finesse. His characters were very strong and real. Naseem Hijazi was a sentimentalist. He could reduce his readers to tears with his moving accounts of love and war.

There’s no denying that Naseem Hijazi was a master of his craft. His extraordinary powers of storytelling and characterization distinguish him among a long list of writers who used history as a background for their novels. The problem however arises when it comes to the content and ideology behind Hijazi’s stories. He presents a highly distorted and biased version of history. In every culture there are elements of cultural narcissism. They have an arrogant sense of superiority from other nations and cultures. To them, their culture, language, religion and version of history are the only truths on the face of earth. Unfortunately cultural narcissism has not just been a school of thought in Pakistan but official state narrative and policy, particularly against India. A biased historical opinion is clearly evident in Hijazi’s work too. Mahmud Ghaznavi who attacked India seventeen times, breached the sanctity of holy places of Hinduism, looted India’s fabulous wealth and took thousands as slaves is hailed as a great warrior of Islam. On the other hand when the same is done by the British in Mysore, South India, conquering the kingdom of Tipu Sultan, Hijazi condemns them as foreign usurpers. In Khaak aur Khoon and other novels which are based on the human tragedy which followed partition of Indian Subcontinent, only the Muslim side of tragedy and suffering is highlighted. Kaiser o Kasra glorifies the Muslim conquest of Persia, but on the other hand Shaheen and other novels on the decline of Moorish Spain portray it as a great tragedy just because this time Muslims were at the losing end. His satirical works, in particular Poras ke Hathi also presents the same inaccurate and a far from real worldview. Naseem Hijazi’s fiction presents a highly exaggerated brighter side of Islam and ignores the dark pages of Muslim history.       

Truth can never remain hidden for too long. When it triumphs, some people find themselves at the wrong side of history. The truth is that a people’s culture and civilization is evolved over the course of centuries. Idealism or unrealistic ambition of a group of like minded people cannot change it in a few years. Unfortunately, soon after Pakistan was created, propagation of a distorted form of Jinnah’s vision of Pakistan was started to create a particular mindset of the common people. It is only natural that Pakistan would always have stronger cultural and historical ties with Indian Subcontinent, Greater Persia and Turkestan than it will ever have with the Arab nations. The official ideology was however in favor of making up ties with Arab nation even if they didn’t exist and deny any cultural or linguistic similarities with India, no matter how strong they were. Naseem Hijazi’s literature is a manifestation of this school of thought. Time and Pakistan’s present circumstances have proved how absolutely wrong such notions were.

Being a diehard fan of Naseem Hijazi’s novels in my school life, (I remember I was reading Shaheen the day before my final biology exam) I did not fully realize the problem with his idealism until one day in a fully packed session on a related issue at Al-Hamra Cultural Centre, a young man stood up and said “Naseem Hijazi’s novels have a great potential of making narrow minded extremists out of its readers.” There was definitely some truth in it.