Aziz Ahmad

Aziz Ahmad, novelist, short story writer, critic, translator, historian (born 11 November 1914 in Hyderabad Deccan [present-day India]; died 16 December 1978 in Toronto, ON).

Aziz Ahmad arrived in Canada in 1962 as associate professor of Islamic Studies at the University of Toronto where, in 1968, he was promoted to full professor. In recognition of his excellence in scholarly research he was made a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada. In 1972 he received an honorary D. Litt. from the University of London.

Aziz Ahmad completed his bachelor of arts at Osmania University, Hyderabad (1934), where he topped the whole university. Thereafter, he went to London on a government scholarship and earned the degree of BA Honours in English Literature (1938). On his return from England he joined Osmania University as lecturer in the Department of English (1938-1941); Ahmad also served as private secretary to Princess Durr-e-Shahwar (1941-1946), while maintaining a lien, then returned to the university as reader (1946-1948). Migrating to Pakistan in 1948, he joined the government's Department of Advertising, Films and Publications, becoming its director in 1953, a position he retained until he moved to London to teach Urdu at the London School of Oriental and African Studies (1957-1962).

Aziz Ahmad authored 10 novels, 5 collections of short stories, 2 books of literary criticism, and a variety of other books. His early novels include Hawas (1931) and Murmur aur Khoon (1932), novels he later repudiated in a letter to Shamim Afza Qamar, who conducted doctoral studies on his work. Mature works include Gurez (1940), Aag (1946), Aisi Balandi Aisi Pasti (1947), and Shabnam (1950). He considered Aag to be his best novel. Aisi Balandi Aisi Pasti was translated into English by Ralph Russell under the title The Shore and the Wave (1971). Aag, in which Aziz Ahmad has captured the soul of Kashmiri society, is the story of 3 generations of people living in Kashmir during a turbulent period of about 35 years, ending in 1942. Ahmad had accompanied Princess Durr-e-Shahwar on a vacation trip to Kashmir and had closely observed the life in the valley. In Aisi Balandi Aisi Pasti he casts a wider net, portraying a feudal system with such creativity that the tragedy of an individual turns out to be a mirror image of the decline of an entire culture. Aziz Ahmad's writings, in general, have been very critical of the feudal system and of social injustices resulting in degrading, inhuman exploitation of the underprivileged, oppressed sectors of the society at large.

Though not duly recognized as such during his lifetime, Aziz Ahmad was also a remarkable short story writer, having earned praise from stalwarts like Mumtaz Shireen, Qurratulain Hyder, Jamil Jalibi and Shahzad Manzar. His two short story collections Raqs-e-Natamaam and Bekaar Din Bekaar Raatein are unique in the sense that only Aziz Ahmad, with his in-depth study of Sigmund Freud and D. H. Lawrence, and his own iconoclastic approach in an era of sweeping changes, could have penned such masterpieces.

As a critic, Aziz Ahmad's book Taraqqi Pasand Adab (1946), a critical assessment of the Progressive Writers Movement in Urdu, is considered one of the few authentic books on the subject. Iqbal Nai Tashkeel is another highly significant book on the great poet Iqbal. Aziz Ahmad started his literary career as a translator. While still a student, he translated a story by Kipling that was published in Nairang-e-Khayal. His other translations include works by Dante, Ibsen, Shakespeare, Harold Lamb, Garcin de Tassy and Aristotle. He was fluent in many languages, including Urdu, Farsi, French and German. He also wrote a drama which was staged in 1931 at Osmania University. A minor poet himself, he edited, in collaboration with Aal-e-Ahmad Suroor, an anthology of selected Urdu poetry from 1914 to 1942 under the title Intekhab-e-Jadeed, which was published with his 12-page introduction in 1943 by Anjuman Taraqqi-e-Urdu. It has gone through 4 more editions.

Most of Ahmad's fame in the West, however, rests on his works of a historical and scholarly nature, written during his tenure at the University of Toronto, namely: Studies in Islamic Culture in the Indian Environment (1964), Islamic Modernism in India and Pakistan 1857-1964 (1967), An Intellectual History of Islam in India (1969) and A History of Islamic Sicily (1979), a publication for which he was honoured by the Italian government.

Aziz Ahmad, while in Canada, continued to take an interest in Urdu literary activities in and around Toronto by holding literary gatherings at his residence, and attending and participating in events of a similar nature. Not long before he died of cancer in Toronto he delivered a wonderful speech at a function held in honour of the visiting Urdu poet Faiz Ahmad Faiz, a Lenin Prize laureate of legendary stature from Pakistan. That proved to be his last public appearance. Some of his letters written from Canada to his fellow writers, critics, friends and well-wishers have been published in Urdu literary journals in Pakistan and India. His very presence in Canada served as a catalytic agent. Even though he devoted most of his time here to academic pursuits, the Urdu-speaking literary world would endearingly refer to him as "our man in Canada."

Further Reading

  • Aziz Ahmad, The Shore and the Wave (1971); Milton Israel and N.K. Wagle, eds., Islamic Society and Culture: Essays in Honour of Professor Aziz Ahmad (1983)