Moses to Marx

Raza Neem

Raza Naeem

Eminent social historian, writer and journalist Syed Sibte Hassan set off on his final journey on April 20, 32 years ago – aged seventy. Almost half a century of this life spread over seven decades was spent in extraordinary scholarly and political activities. He was a cultured person who spent a multifaceted life and inscribed his deep individual imprints within various fields, but his basic identity was as a Marxist thinker. It would not be incorrect to say that he was the greatest writer and interpreter of socialist thought in Pakistan. As a socialist, he illuminated the various social and political problems of the past and of his own time in his Urdu and English writings. His manner of thinking was objective. He saw and evaluated every phenomenon from a scientific point of view and while doing so, benefitted from many and varied subjects of the social sciences. His writings simultaneously show a historian, an anthropological expert, someone with a deep understanding of economics and a connoisseur of literature presenting his drippings of thought. Sibte Hassan’s sources were also of many different kinds, though they had the common characteristic of being highly perceptive. He tried to study metaphysics, world religions, classical and modern philosophy and the scientific thought, but his manner of evaluating both ancient and modern thought was purely Marxist. He did not view thought as fixed in nature and a hair-splitting activity by the human brain but analyzed them in the perspective of the entire society of related eras and societal contradictions. Therefore he analysed the systems of thought and experiences of ancient civilisations in the background of the productive relations and material facts prevalent in these civilisations. He also evaluated the ideas and thoughts of the Middle Ages with respect to the social formations of their time and society. In the same manner, in his opinion, the growth of ideas and their mutual clash in the modern age can only be understood in the background of the capitalist system and its social mastery in this age.

Sibte Hassan devoted the last one to two decades of his life to purely educational and research work. There are many books borne of this ardour and curiosity, which achieved such popularity upon publication that one edition was followed by successive editions. It seems that his writings fell the like the first drops of rain on the static environment and dry earth of society and were absorbed swiftly therein. The questions whose answers were being sought by a young generation were answered by these writings. These books were most accessible in Pakistan’s far-flung areas because they were the messengers of new ideas and thoughts. Sibte Hassan challenged several postulates in his writings and with his scientific analysis proved wrong many unrealistic perceptions which had besieged minds. The manner in which weakness of faith was promoted in the name of religion had closed off the routes of healthy development of society.The closing off of people’s minds, achieved through magic and witchcraft, amulets and charms, and other supernatural ideas could only have been reformed by reforming these tendencies and ideas in the light of reason. This task was achieved by Sibte Hassan’s writings in a very effective way.

In Maazi ke Mazaar (Tombs of the Past), he analysed the ideas about the creation of Adam among ancient civilisations in the light of the latest anthropological perspectives. Likewise while analysing the tendency towards blind following which eventually results in communalism, he opined that in these societies, feudalism and monarchy had closed off the paths of reason and rationality and played a pivotal role in forcing human minds to incline towards blind following, instead of turning towards creativity.

Again with respect to religion, he analysed the conspiracies and anti-people policies of states in his time. He felt that just like in the Middle Ages rulers used divine references for rationalising their power; in the modern age too, the rulers bereft of any lawful claim do not hesitate to use religion for forcing their rule and control over the people. His book Naveed-e-Fikr (Glad Tidings of Thought) has the status of a thought-provoking and pathbreaking work in this context.

Sibte Hassan’s way of thinking was deeply rooted in historical materialism. He viewed the political and social institutions, customs and traditions, ideas and thoughts of any period of history in the perspective of the same period and established their value in that same perspective. While doing this, he also recognised the need to clarify the reality of how to distinguish the prevalent powers of any period from the past. Here his historicism would harmonise with his progressiveness and he would say that in any battle of the past it is necessary to note between opposing and warring powers, as to which one stands for the permanence and preservation of the present order, and which one is the vanguard of change. He used to say that a pow

er which is the vanguard of change in one period and which could definitely be determined as the progressive power of that period; does not necessarily remain as such in the following period – unless it is seen to be the vanguard of change in the later period as well.

Sibte Hassan’s extended educational and research works were published under the titles of Maazi ke MazaarPakistan men Tehzeeb ka Irtiqa (The Evolution of Culture in Pakistan), Musa se Marx Tak (From Moses to Marx), Inquilab-e-Iran (The Iranian Revolution) and Naveed-e-Fikr. Shortly before he passed away, he had completed his English work The Battle of Ideas in Pakistan and sent it to press. This book saw the light of day after his death. Likewise, he was also busy writing another book on Faiz Ahmad Faiz. It was later published as Sukhan dar Sukhan(Words Upon Words) by Sibte Hassan’s longtime comrade Hassan Abidi. Another incomplete work was based on his research about Karl Marx and the Eastern world. He had devoted extraordinary labour to this subject. He had indeed been studying the writings of Karl Marx since his youth and had previously written a lot on this subject as well, but for writing the aforementioned book and especially, before picking up the pen about the Eastern world and the promotion of Marxist thought in the Muslim countries and its effects, he had collected a lot of material. In this respect, he had obtained the photocopies of many rare writings from the India Office Library of London. When Sibte Hassan passed away, he had completed the initial three to four chapters of the book and he had formulated a plan for the remaining chapters. It was later published by his devoted student Syed Jaffar Ahmed as Marx aur Mashriq (Marx and the East) and was extraordinarily praised in educated circles. Even now, young researchers working on this topic in various international universities remain in search of this book and acknowledge its assistance in their endeavours.

Sibte Hassan’s progressive tendency in viewing the evolutionary process of history, his method of using the principles of historical materialism and dialectical materialism in social analysis, and his efforts in establishing prospects with respect to the future, also had a direct impact on his literary writings. These have been published in four books: Afkar-e-Taaza (Fresh Thoughts), Adab aur Roshan Khayali (Literature and Enlightenment), Mughanni-e-Aatish Nafas – Sajjad Zaheer (The Fire-Breathing Singer), and Adeeb aur Samaaji Amal (The Writer and Social Process). These books are the best reflection of his literary consciousness and Progressive literary thought.

In addition to educational and research works and literary writings, a great field of his writerly efforts consists of his association with journalism and his editorship of an important weekly Lail-o-Nahaar (Night and Day). From 1957 to 1959, he remained the editor of Lail-o-Nahaar, which was a journal of Progressive Papers Limited (PPL). This institution, owned by Mian Iftikharuddin, also published the Daily Imroz (Today)and in English The Pakistan Times. Sibte Hassan’s association with this journal ended when, after the martial law of 1958, the military regime of Ayub Khan nationalised PPL. The second period of Lail-o-Nahaar began in 1970 and ended in 1971. In its first period, it was published from Lahore, while in the second period it was published from Karachi.

Sibte Hassan’s editorials for Lail-o-Nahaar were a reflection of pro-people and progressive thought on political and social conditions. He had a deep grasp over current affairs and he closely watched the political conspiracies and the dictatorial methods of state institutions arrayed against a weak democracy. His editorials have the literary status of an axiom. His writing style contains neither loud-mannered verbosity nor idle sloganeering. He used an unhurried language. In fact, his writing style was simple and logical. These editorials have been compiled in the volume Pakistan ke Tehzeebi-o-Siyasi Masail (The Cultural and Political Problems of Pakistan).

Here it is also necessary to make a brief reference to Sibte Hassan’s political activities because it consisted of an important corner of his life. Sibte Hassan had joined the Communist Party in his youth. In this regard, he also fulfilled the responsibilities of writing in the Party newspapers and magazines and participating in their editorial sections. He wrote a lot of essays and reports in Qaumi Jang, the Party organ published from Bombay. After the creation of Pakistan, when he migrated here, he was a member of the Party’s politbureau, alongside being active on the journalistic front. The responsibility for writing the various Party booklets, announcements and other documents was more or less taken up by him. Sibte Hassan was also arrested as part of the arrests made in reference to the Rawalpindi Conspiracy Case of 1951. Afterwards, in 1954, both the Communist Party and the Progressive Writers Association were banned. After his release from prison, Sibte Hassan continued writing articles in various newspapers and magazines. His editorship of Lail-o-Nahaar has already been mentioned. He remained in Lahore for a few more years after that. During this time, he worked for Ferozsons Lahore for a short time. During this period he translated many books and compiled a few for the Majlis Taraqqi-e-Adab and wrote detailed introductions for them. During this time, he also wrote essays in the Civil and Military Gazette. In the early part of the decade of the 1960s, he shifted to Karachi where in future years he made writing and compilation his primary occupation, but along with that he also wrote articles in Hurriyet and Dawn. Two of his important debates were also published in Dawn. One argument was on the topic of secularism with eminent lawyer Advocate Khalid Ishaque. Likewise, with Professor Qamaruddin Khan he participated in a discussion on the causes of backwardness in the Muslim world.

Sibte Hassan was very fortunate in the sense that he received wide popularity in his own lifetime and his work was acknowledged in educational and literary circles. Both his name and work continue to be imprinted on minds after his passing away. Especially the young generation looking for progressive thought swiftly makes his writings into a sort of amulet against an evil spell. The reason for this is his appeal to the intellect and thus also making a place in the heart. Not for nothing did the great progressive poet Kaifi Azmi appeal in 1988 for the award of the Sitara-e-Pakistan, the country’s highest civil award, to Sibte Hassan for his educational achievements.

Pakistan’s great resistance poet summed up Pakistan’s greatest Marxist thinker in the following words:

He was culture and conscience incarnate, Sibte Hassan

As he departed, the assembly, too, became a dream

He didn’t care to preserve just a few flowers

Rather he wished that the entire garden bloom

His imprints will lead the discussion forward

This flamboyant evolution will not cease

We will teach and be taught how to live

From his ideas and thoughts, will all the lovers of the word

He spoke the truth that life itself takes their steps

When men and women are not afraid to die

The usurpers will not be there forever, how well he used to say

When the weak-bodied and the scorned all rise

His name rings in every street O Jalib

For the very mountains and the valleys have been awakened by his thought’

(Habib Jalib)

The article was originally published in The Friday Times latest issue.

Raza Naeem is a Pakistani social scientist, book critic and award-winning translator and dramatic reader currently teaching in Lahore. He is currently the president of the Progressive Writers Association in Lahore. His most recent work is an introduction to the reissued edition (HarperCollins India, 2016) of Abdullah Hussein’s classic novel ‘The Weary Generations’. He can be reached at:


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