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LITERARY NOTES: A history of naat in Urdu, its research and criticism

LITERARY NOTES: A history of naat in Urdu, its research and criticism

NAAT is an Arabic word and it means, literally, praise. In Urdu, naat means the praise of Prophet Hazrat Muhammad (PBUH). A poem with praise of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) is also called naat in Urdu.

In Arabic poetry, the genre naat does exist but it is called ‘madh’ or ‘madeeh’. The earliest naat was written in Arabic during the lifetime of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH). From Arabic, naat reached a large number of world literatures, including Persian, Urdu, Turkish, Punjabi, Sindhi, Pashtu, Seraiki and many more.

The tradition of composing naat poetry in Urdu has a long history. Since almost every Urdu poet has composed at least a few couplets in praise of the Prophet (PBUH), the history of Urdu naat poetry is as old as Urdu poetry itself. Though major poets of Urdu, such as Qulli Qutub Shah, Vali Dakani, Mirza Sauda, Mir Taqi Mir, Maumin, Karamat Ali Shaheedi and Ghalib wrote couplets praising the Prophet of Islam (PBUH), it was not until the first half of the 19th century that naat in Urdu poetry became a recognised and distinct poetical genre all by itself.

It is Maulana Kifayat Ali Kaafi who is credited with making naat a distinct genre. Maulana Kaafi was an Islamic scholar from Muradabad and was hanged in 1858 by the British for taking part in India’s 1857 war of freedom. Another poet who played a role in popularizing naat in Urdu in early phase was Maulana Ghulam Imam Shaheed. Then Hafiz Lutf Barelvi enriched the genre of naat.

After this early phase, Mohsin Kakorvi and Ameer Meenai perfected the art of naat poetry in Urdu in the last quarter of the 19th century. These two poets have to their credit a collection of naat poetry each, which was a unique distinction as till then no Urdu poet had published a collection of poetry consisting entirely of naat. Mohsin Kakorvi was the first Urdu poet to have devoted all his poetical talent to compose naat only.

Later, especially in the post 1857-era, a number of Urdu poets composed naat full of pathos of the particular situation. Altaf Hussain Hali led the way with his famous Musaddas, titled ‘Madd-o-jazar-i-Islam’. It contains a number of stanzas composed in a style of naat. His other poems too have naat elements. With a cue from Hali, Shibli Nomani, Maulana Zafar Ali Khan and Allama Iqbal wrote some moving pieces of religious and nationalistic poetry with naat elements. Another poet known for his naat poetry is Maulana Ahmed Raza Khan Barelvi. After the independence in 1947, a new era of naat in Urdu poetry began, especially in Pakistan. A very large number of poets are now composing naat.

But it is very strange that critical writings on naat are comparatively scarce. Maulana Hali’s ‘Muqaddama-i-sher-o-shaeri’ is the first treatise in Urdu on the art and principles of literary criticism, but it says nothing of the naat poetry. Ameer Meenai’s writings defending Mohsin Kakorvi are perhaps the first critical Urdu writings that discuss naat on the basis of literary merits and poetic values. It was none other than Muhammad Hasan Askari who, while writing on Mohsin Kakorvi, brightened the way for the critics who were to write on the subject in the years to come. But Askari is a bit unconvinced of the naat elements in Hali’s Musaddas. Since Askari had turned against modernists and Modernism, he felt that Hali had composed those stanzas from a western and modernist point of view, praising certain aspects of the life and personality of the Prophet (PBUH) that are more “humanistic” than “spiritual”.

In his recently compiled and published book Urdu naat ki shaeri rivayet, Sabeeh Rahmani has given an outline history of critical and research works carried out on naat in Urdu. According to him, though now we have about 10 PhD and several M Phil and MA dissertations written on the genre of naat in Urdu, Dr Rafiuddin Ashfaq has the distinction of earning the first-ever PhD on a thesis researching and evaluating Urdu’s naat poetry. University of Nagpur awarded him a doctorate in 1955 on his work Urdu mein naatiya shaeri. In 1974, Dr Farman Fatehpuri’s book Urdu ki naatiya shaeri was published from Karachi. Dr Talha Rizvi Barq’s book Urdu ki naatiya shaeri published from India the same year. Apparently, both the scholars were unaware of each other’s work while writing the book and independently completed their research. In Pakistan, adds Sabeeh Rahmani, Dr Riaz Majeed penned Urdu mein naat goi, first doctoral dissertation in Pakistan on naat, which was published in 1990.

In his intro to the book Sabeeh Rahmani has given a thumbnail summary of the large number of critical and research works on naat in Urdu. Published by Karachi’s Academy Bazyaft, the thick volume consists of articles by renowned researchers and critics, expounding the definition, history, prospects and literary merits of naat poetry in Urdu. Sabeeh Rahmani has given the credit to Mubeen Mirza for giving him the idea of compiling such a book. Indeed both the writers deserve kudos and our thanks for such comprehensive work on Urdu naat poetry.

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Published in Dawn, December 12th, 2016

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