The craft of writing

Creative writing courses for aspiring writers seem like a new trend. These courses — usually — spanning two years — have no more than ten to twenty students in each batch, have accomplished writers as teachers ( big names like Salman Rushdie would prefer guest lectures while others may become artists-in-residence, though of course exceptions apply). Eventually, the students are required to submit a collection of poems, short stories or a novel as a thesis, which is then marked.

Most students abroad choose these programmes because they provide a chance to fully focus on writing without distraction. You have readings, evaluations, analysis, topics to write on, creativity boosting exercises and an academic atmosphere of peace away from the professional worries and family vows.

Just like other masters’ courses, these are also expensive. In a way these are easier to get into because often there are no mandatory GRE and other conventional application requirements — other than your published or unpublished manuscripts. Yet, such a policy also makes it harder to differentiate yourself on any standardised template because the number of seats is so limited and the selection criteria so ambiguous. Top schools can indeed be very difficult to get into. The “tilt” or “niche” of the school, say experimental fiction or

Subaltern poetry also influences the student.

Bilal Tanweer, a MFA graduate from Columbia University, teaches creative writing courses at LUMS. “These courses deal with the craft’s aspects on a very basic level,” says Tanweer.  “These include techniques writers use to build narratives. In writing workshops we try to study and develop an understanding of the various ways narratives in fiction are built and what are the advantages and limitations of each way.”

An MFA programme connects you to publishers, literary agents (who help in all aspects of publishing) and editors. The publishing circuits in the United States, the MFA Creative Writing stronghold, are huge, layered and highly professional. Although the publishers don’t reject your work simply because you don’t have a degree it does help one in learning some tricks of the trade and in building contacts with publishers and contemporary writers. This often results in publication success for many graduates. The tricks and tips provided for success can be very formulaic and while this isn’t necessarily positive for fiction writing, they can help in writing non-fiction and journalistic pieces.

A creative writer’s innovative and original style may only be marketable in the “long run”, and who knows, perhaps aspiring for relatively safe, formulaic, and lucrative is the realistic way to start for most writers. But an MFA from Pakistan might even beget such a result because of the limited market size. And looking westwards with Pakistani training may not garner you enough credibility.

Some of course believe that a creative writing degree is useless, partly because most great writers — from any given region or time — had no such degree. Though other arts like music, theatre and dance have had a concept of apprenticeship that goes back to hundreds if not thousands of years, writing has been free from such ostensible clutches. Some — though not all — of those who disapprove of this MFA credentialing trend also argue that talent is either genetic or natural, and cannot be taught per se.

Prof Shaista Sonnu Sirajuddin, the Head of the English Department at Punjab University, believes there is no formula for writing success and that all great writers were great readers. She added that the western curiosity regarding Pakistan due to the “War on Terror” has led to their hailing “B” grade and mediocre fiction as masterpieces; therefore the success Pakistani authors experience there now might not be based solely on the work’s literary merit. She adds that “You cannot put in what the good Lord has left out.”

Pakistan is churning out thousands of bachelors, masters and M.Phils in English Literature who eventually end up teaching English at various levels. A creative writing degree can push one a step closer to becoming an accomplished writer, but who otherwise will have more or less the same market for jobs as one with an post-graduate degree in literature. One can always go back to teaching at various levels of the educational food-chain. Also, an MFA may give one the time to reflect on one’s literary prowess (or lack thereof) and put it under the scrutiny of teachers and class-fellows. It should also further polish your grammar, expressions and teach you the structures of short stories, novellas, novels, poems etc. Reading is crucial for good writing and most courses include extensive reading lists as well as optional literature courses.

Many of the new crop of Pakistani English authors such as H. M. Naqvi, Mohammed Hanif, Kamila Shamsie and Daniyal Mueenuddin actually do have degrees in creative writing. But since their literary careers have just started, their artistic merit and legacy is still to be determined. Though most of these authors agree that the training helped them, almost all also say that it is not necessary for becoming a good writer. The older generation of writers and poets like Ahmed Ali, Alamgir Hashmi, Dr Tariq Rahman and Zulfikar Ghose didn’t have such training of course.

“Of course it’s not imperative to have an MFA/BFA to write fiction— or to paint or to sculpt, for that matter.” says Bilal Tanweer. “These are just options available to artists to study with other artists and deepen their understanding of their art.”

When asked what difference the creative writing course made to his fiction, Mohammed Hanif responded “It doesn’t really make a difference, though it does give you the time to devote yourself to writing.”

But one doesn’t have to go all the way for the two years masters. Workshops that cost much less and last only for a few days, weeks or months are readily available in almost any western university and then there are online courses. Full-time courses are available and brief workshops are available in Europe and America (London School of Journalism, University of California Riverside, and so on). Literary journals (Granta, Zoetrope: All-Story, Tin House) and non-profit organisations (Paris Writers Workshop, Lighthouse Writers Workshop) also hold regular workshops.

More and more creative writing courses have started in various universities. Although a full-time degree course has yet to materialise, Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS), Kinnaird College, Beaconhouse National University (BNU), Indus Valley School, and Lahore School of Economics now offer short courses in creative writing. The British Council also holds workshops in creative writing.

“BNU offers two types of creative writing courses — Script Writing and Creative Writing for Mass Communication students.” says Asghar Nadeem Syed, the dean of the Television, Film and Theatre department at BNU. “We teach the basics of fiction, poetry and creative writing to the Creative Writing students in Mass Communication.” He points out that there is no such training available in Urdu and other regional languages.

Though Punjab University has no such course yet, its prestigious English department has been holding workshops under Zulfiqar Ghose’s guidance for three years now.

“The English Department feels very privileged to have had poet, critic, and writer of fiction Zulfiqar Ghose hold creative writing workshops for students on several occasions.” says Prof Shaista Sonnu Sirajuddin. His initial reluctance vanished when he saw the enthusiasm and keenness of the students to learn. Ghose loves doing these annual workshops, where he takes ten to twelve students to discuss their writings. Ali Sethi and Kamila Shamsie have also given talks.

Pakistani literature in any language will flourish only when there is a local market for it. Plus the class barriers, where students from poorer economic stratus cannot access writing training, need to be diminished. Liberal arts colleges like National College of Arts, Punjab University and even Allama Iqbal Open University and Virtual University should step forward to train young Pakistani creative writers.


A fresh

Questioning the Authority of the Past: The Ahl al-Quran
Movements in the Punjab
By Ali Usman Qasmi
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Pages: 360
Price: Rs 825


In present day Pakistan, where religious freedom is suppressed, it is quite inconceivable that there was a time when numerous religious scholars and organisations were engaged in such theological debates as the authority of the Prophet (pbuh) and his spoken words (Hadith) and actions (Sunnat) as the sources of guidance for a Muslim. Such scholars and their followers were variously referred to as Chakralawis, Parwezis and Munkir-i-Hadith.

Questioning the Authority of the Past: The Ahl al-Quran Movements in the Punjab is the detailed historical study of these people and their ideas. But instead of using the terms cited above, which have a derogatory or negative connotation, Qasmi has preferred the term Ahl al-Quran. Literally, it means the people of Quran and in the book it refers to those individual scholars, their followers and organisations which regard the Quran as the only source of religious guidance for Muslims in the matters of religious duties and worldly affairs. To varying degrees, they disregard the use of Hadith. They also concur in disregarding the works of former jurisprudents and exegetes as the final word in the interpretation of Islam and its divine scripture. Instead, they emphasise the importance of Ijtihad (the making of a decision in Islamic law by personal effort, independently of any school) and fresh interpretation of Islam which can be in conjunction with the dictates of modernity.

Other than the compulsion of conforming to modernity, such scholars were also concerned about the content of Hadith literature in general. In their writings, Qasmi refers to several Ahadith referred by them as “objectionable” which portray the Prophet (pbuh) or his teachings in a negative light.

Qasmi is careful to point out that the Ahl al-Quran does not refer to an organised movement under the banner of a centralised authority. Instead, from the late 19th century onwards there have been different individual scholars whose writings have carved a discursive niche within South Asian Islam which can be referred to as the Ahl al-Quran. As a historian, Qasmi is less concerned about the theological subtleties of the movement and more about its historical origins and context. For this purpose, he gives a description of the late 19th century religious debates, controversies and polemics which were shaping the discourse of Islam in South Asia. He argues that in an attempt to conform to Western notions of rationality, scholars like Sayyid Ahmad Khan, Sayyid Amir Ali and Maulwi Chiragh Ali were carrying out a revised interpretation of Quranic verses. In doing so, it was necessary for them to emphasise a nuanced understanding of certain Quranic terms. This could not be done while carrying the burden of Hadith and classical works of exegesis which imposed a certain meaning for a particular verse.

By denying the authority of Hadith and the works of revered jurists and exegetes, Sayyid Ahmad Khan arrived at an interpretation of Quran which was “naturalist”. For example on the Quranic verses dealing with Moses, Sayyid Ahmad gave explanation of “natural causes” at play instead of relying on those Ahadith which simply describe these events as miracles.

Qasmi has described Maulvi Abdullah Chakralawi as the first person who openly denounced the authority of the Prophet (pbuh) to serve as a religious guide for Muslims. Chakralawi was born in Mianwali district during the first half of the 19th century. He was of a follower of Ahl-e-Hadith and the prayer leader at one of its important centres in Lahore — the Chiniyan Wali Masjid in the walled city. At the turn of the 20th century, his religious views were transformed and he openly denounced the Hadith. Consequently, Muhammad Husain Batalawi — another Ahl-e-Hadith scholar – mobilised the Ulema throughout British India to issue a fatwa of kufr against Chakralawi.

 In Chakralawi’s opinion, the Quran alone was sufficient for guidance on all matters of religious and worldly affairs. In this regard, the obvious question raised was about the ritual procedure of performing salat which can only be learnt from the words and actions of the Prophet (pbuh) handed down to the successive generation of Muslims through various sources. In order to answer this question, Chakralawi wrote a detailed work in which he inferred from various verses the “ritual procedure” for performing “Quranic namaz.” For such works, in which Chakralawi had stretched the meanings of Quranic terms to the point of distortion, there could not be a mass following.

The later day scholars with similar approach tried to reconcile the idea of limiting the importance of Hadith and the supremacy of the Quran as a source of guidance by acceding to the authority of the Prophet in principle but limiting it in practice by various means. Such scholars, like Jafar Shah Phulwarwi and Tamanna Imadi, gave the Hadith similar status as any other historical source. For them, Hadith were not divinely preserved as the Quran. There had been certain lapses in the recording of Hadith. Hence, it could not be argued, in their opinion, that denying Hadith amounted to same thing as denying a certain edict of Quran. So instead of saying that Prophet’s only purpose was to relay the message of Quran, Imadi and Phulwarwi accepted the authority of the Prophet in matters of religious guidance but were sceptical of the way in which it had been transmitted to the Muslims.

Maulana Aslam Jairajpuri adopted a slightly different approach. He preferred Prophet’s practice over his words. According to him, since the ritual manner of offering prayers and other obligations have been in continuous practice for centuries among all the Muslims with only slight variations, it is reasonable to believe that this practice had been put in vogue by the Prophet himself and should be faithfully followed by all without resorting to such practices as “Quranic Namaz.” In this manner, the Prophet’s role other than that of transmitter of Quran was recognised while limiting it to the observance of ritual performances only, without necessarily accepting the “objectionable content” of certain Ahadith.

It was one of Aslam Jairajpuri’s disciples, Ghulam Ahmad Parwez, that became the most influential ideologue who championed a revisionist discourse on Islam emphasising reinterpretation of Quran and limiting the authority of non-Quranic sources including Hadith. In his endeavours, Parwez was successful in impressing upon the college educated Muslim bourgeoisie and professionals. His writings were widely read by the ruling elites of Pakistan as well, including military and civil bureaucracy. He presented the ideal of Islam as a progressive force which could be used in the nascent state of Pakistan as a modernising tool. This task had been taken up by General Ayub Khan who wanted to give an ideological orientation to Pakistan by instrumentalising the use of Islam to cement a multi-ethnic state like Pakistan on the basis of religion.

But in order to prevent obscurantist forces from exploiting Islam, it was essential that a version of Islam which was compatible with the idea of making Pakistan a modern and progressive state was put into practice. For this purpose, Ayub Khan and his government used Ghulam Ahmad Parwez, his organisation Tulo-i-Islam and his writings. The confidential details of connivance between Parwez and Ayub Khan have been unearthed by Qasmi in this book which provides an interesting reading about a hitherto unknown aspect of Pakistan’s history.



A page from history

An octogenarian writer has narrated the story of the early years of the Progressive Writers Association of Pakistan alluding to many interesting events and facts that had been covered under the dust of time. Amin Rahat Chughtai has written the story in the monthly Takhleeq.

Chughtai begins with an eye-witness account of the first conference of the association that took place at the Lawrence Garden, now mostly known as Bagh-e-Jinnah, in Lahore in the second week of November, 1949. The government was not happy with the progressives and their gathering. It created many difficulties for them. A group of right-wing zealots of Lahore ganged up against the progressives. With sticks in hands, they raided the conference in order to disperse the participants. But the participants faced the situation bravely and stood their ground. Chughtai says the attackers were being led by Agha Shorish Kashmiri, Dr. Waheed Qureshi, Saifud Din Saif, Riaz Shahid and Zahoorul Hasan Dar. He further says that the 1949 conference was attended by a large number of writers from various parts of the country as well as by groups of farmers and labourers who kept chanting “God grant us equality.”

Sajjad Zaheer was the general secretary of the Communist Party of Pakistan in those days, but he had gone underground for some political reasons. He did not attend the meeting but his message was read out in the inaugural session in which he asked the writers to make use of literature for the success of democratic revolution. The welcome address was presented by Maulana Chiragh Hasan Hasrat.

A manifesto was issued at the end of the conference. It emphasised that the progressive writers were the true inheritors of our civilisation and time honoured literary traditions. We have been, it added, shrugging off the literature of Pakistani nationalities. Not much attention has been paid to Punjabi, Sindhi, Pushto and Baloch literature. This trend must end. We are under national and cultural obligation to seriously read the old and modern literature of these languages and benefit from it.

The first conference of the Progressive Writers Association followed hard on the heels of the 5th conference of the Indian progressive association and emphasised the idea that no writer could remain impartial in the war against imperialism.

Amin Rahat Chughtai has also written about the Pakistan Peace Conference held at Okara in April 1950. Chaired by Faiz Ahmed Faiz, it was attended by poets, writers, journalists as well as representatives of various trade unions, Kisan Committee, Railway Workers Union, Democratic Women Association, Democratic Students and the Communist Party of Pakistan.

Hamid Akhtar was secretary of the Lahore chapter of the Progressive Writers Association in those days. Chughtai writes that the association was reorganised after the adoption of the new manifesto. As a result of it, Khadeja Mastoor was elected as secretary of the Lahore chapter and Amin Rahat Chughtai who had earlier played a role in the formation of Democratic Students Federation, got the office of the joint secretary. First meetings of the Lahore chapter were held at Rafi Pir’s residence but the venue was later shifted to Mazhar Ali Khan’s house at Lawrence Road. Chughtai says that Ahmad Nadeem Qasmi, Hajra Masroor and Khadeeja Mastoor were always the first to reach there and they were followed by Zaheer Kashmiri, Safdar Mir, Arif Abdul Mateen, Qateel Shifai and Ahmad Rahi. Some girl students of the Punjab University were also regular there.



It is not easy to say whether Iftikhar Nasim was famous for his literary achievements or for certain aspects of his personality. However, it goes without saying that he was a good poet who also won notice for his generous hospitality. The Faisalabad born poet who died recently in the US had been living in Chicago since the early 1970s and kept an open house for men and women of letters coming from South Asia. Twice he invited me but I could not avail of his offer.

Not much has been written about Iftikhar Nasim. However, fictionist Neelam Ahmad Bashir penned a brilliant vignette of his personality four years ago. She had been his guest at Chicago and afterwards wrote about him.

Iftikhar Nasim was the most famous Urdu poet in America whom Dr. Anwar Ahmad described as the “representative voice of Urdu in America.” He stood up to resist the wave of hatred and prejudice against the Muslims in his adopted country in the wake of 9/11.

One may describe the poet as a rebel who trampled social and moral values of his society. But his good stars had taken him far away from his home country before the rise of religious extremism that has no patience even for individual peccadilloes.

He published The Pakistan News from Chicago and also was the host of an Urdu radio programme. Nasim inherited the passion for journalism from his father Khaleeq Ahmad Khaleeq who was editor of the Awam, Faisalabad’s best-known daily and was also a much-respected figure of the city. Iftikhar Nasim never forgot the city of his birth and wrote some poems about it.

But Faisalabad has not cared for the poet. No condolence meeting for him was held there. Perhaps we should not blame his friends and the literati of the town for this lapse: the prevailing cultural atmosphere there could hardly make room for such a gathering.

Iftikhar Nasim was remembered and tributes were paid to him in Islamabad where a condolence reference was arranged jointly by the Pakistan Academy of Letters and National Language Authority. It was chaired by Dr Anwar Ahmad, a recruit to the capital city’s band of intellectuals. Khalid Iqbal Yasir, Mansha Yad, Anjum Khaleeq, Jalil Aali and others were there to remember the late poet.

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