In many ways, reality is stranger than fiction itself. If we were to collect a record of what happened in our real world, it would surpass made up stories in its twists and turns.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in historical fiction, the genre where we recreate times gone by. Though the official genre is perhaps only a few centuries old, its roots and prototypes go way back. Every major nation and language group in the world has produced historical fiction. I mean who wouldn’t want to reimagine themselves and their history. We all like to think that our past was greater than our present.
Urdu language and its speakers are not far behind either. The language and its speakers have had their fair share of historical reimaginations. But if we were to trace this genre’s birth, development and popularity in Urdu, there is one name that would stand out. One person who carried Urdu historical fiction almost single-handedly to its peak. That name is Naseem Hijazi, the great storyteller of our history.
Born as Sharif Hussain in colonial Punjab, this odd creator of medieval tales went on to become a household name over the latter half of the 20th century. It wouldn’t be far-fetched to say that even today, most people can only think of Naseem Hijazi when they discuss historical fiction in Pakistan. Readers, particularly from the older generations, have most probably read at least one or two Hijazi novels in their lifetime. Khaak aur Khun, Shaheen, Gumshuda Kaflay, Qaiser o Qisra and many more are still found in the old collections of many bibliophiles. For many people, he was often their gateway into South Asian and Islamic history.
It would be quite a task to describe Hijazi’s complete work, simply owing to the large number of novels he produced in his career. Unfortunately, his legacy has also been tarnished with (at times unfair) accusations on his ideology. People claim that Naseem Hijazi’s novels carried seeds of fundamental beliefs and glorification of war, that his novels were what inspired many modern-day polemical Islamist figures in Pakistan. But the purpose of this little piece is not just to focus on Hijazi’s personal beliefs and ideas. That would be unfair to him and to the many potential readers who have yet to discover his work.
We’ll address the point of ideology at the end but it is first as a novelist that he is to be discussed, and here there is no denying that he was in a league of his own. He understood the art of storytelling in ways that very few of his contemporaries and successors could. Here, we look at four things that made Naseem Hijazi a master of his craft and why his novels were and still are so addictive. It is a lesson in excellent story-telling.
For historical fiction, this goes without saying that effectively recreating the past is central to a novel’s quality. If a writer can manage to put you mentally in the time period they write about and make you care about it, they have half-succeeded.
It would be an understatement to say that Naseem Hijazi was successful. He was more than that.
Hijazi is often compared to Sir Walter Scott- the first great historical novelist- in that both men rewrote a romanticized form of history, often simplifying their medieval worlds. However, it could well be argued that he was ahead of Walter Scott in many ways. He is more in the league of other historical fiction giants like Maurice Druon (Accursed King Series) and Dorothy Dunnett (Lymond Chronicles), both of whom were his contemporaries. These writers did not just rewrite history, they breathe new life into it. In Naseem Hijazi’s works you don’t just read history, you live inside it.
A typical Hijazi novel experience will transport you to the time period he wants to take you to. In his novels, there aren’t just plain descriptions of food where you simply read about what is being served, you can actually inhale the odour and taste that food. You don’t just passively read the dialogue of traders in Medieval Bazaars, you can listen to their voices and arguments clearly. You can imagine yourself sitting inside one of the shops watching two people from 12th-century bargaining over a piece of expensive silk cloth. In his stories, you are not supposed to just sit tucked in your bed skimming through a battle description. You’ll discover yourself standing inside the battlefield and seeing without your own eyes the cavalry charges, hearing with your own ears the passionate speeches, and find your heart beating fast as the tense atmosphere of a violent contest overtakes you.
It’s a blockbuster experience and one that makes it hard for anyone to put down Hijazi’s books once they’ve started. Some of it is down to his prose skills but it is also the fruits of painstaking research he undertook before writing his novels. The past feels alive because he spent significant time trying to understand it before penning it down. Interestingly though, this is hardly his strongest point. Let’s move on to that.
Choice of Story
As a historical writer, Hijazi had a rich tapestry of events and narratives to choose from. He could’ve written celebratory odes to any Golden era of Muslims or to times where they reigned supreme. That sort of self-glorification is what many of his contemporaries did without compromise and in fact, some of his readers and admirers do too. Naseem Hijazi refused to do the same.
Most of his novels are written in truly testing periods of Islamic history. His stories are set in a time where the worlds of his protagonists are falling apart. The fall of Spain, the invasions by Mongols, the debauchery of Umayyad’s and Abbasids, the fall of India to British. His narratives describe upheaval, tragedy, and permanent change where the old order is always falling apart and new destructive alien forces are taking over.
Very few of his novels are ever set in a historically amicable era, where the characters do not have to constantly worry about their very futures, lives, beliefs, families, society, and culture.
This deliberate choice of destructive time is Hijazi’s distinctive signature. This is what brings a sense of poignancy to his stories and why they will pack a far more emotional punch than you would expect. His novels do not always have nice endings nor is there always a great celebration in the end. There is a sense of loss, a feeling of pathos in how Hijazi’s stories unfold.
Obviously, tragedy is not all that Hijazi has to offer. There is hope embodied in his characters too.
Tragic worlds often call for brave people. Hijazi understood this better than anyone else.
His harsh and cruel worlds are perfectly complemented by his larger-than-life protagonists. They are smart, patient, brave, persevering and honourable. They understand the threats to their societies and are willing to fight against them.
Hijazi’s characters are often described as ‘ultra-perfect and flawless’ by some critics. Some of this is true because he deliberately chose to create historical figures not as they were, but as what we would imagine them to be. Put simply, his characters are heroes in the most classical sense of the word. Thus, many of the warriors, queens, priests, and scholars Hijazi recreated are always shown at their best and finest. For instance, Hajjaj bin Yousef of Hijazi’s novels is just a great general and a concerned family man. He is not the same troublesome Ummayad Governor who later on in his life marched onto Mecca with an army and left it with blood on his hand.
However, despite their perfection, his characters do not feel annoying or overbearing in the least. This is because, despite their personal brilliance, they are always on the losing side. They are the ones who are fighting against the tide of time. They are the ones who are getting slaughtered, maimed, and destroyed. From the heroes who tried to stop the Spanish Inquisition to the isolated Tipu Sultan who bravely defied the invading British, his protagonists are always waging a battle that they are pre-destined by history to lose.
We all know that Mongols destroyed Baghdad, that the British eventually defeated Tipu Sultan, or that the Partition train passengers were slaughtered on both sides. It is the struggle in these events that we desire to see. Hijazi excelled at showing it. This is also why he traces his character arcs in a way that few did. His belief was that if a reader wanted to follow someone’s story in a tragic world, it had to be a hero’s.
His novels contain such a vast tapestry of characters from every possible spectrum of life that you can never feel left out. His stories will describe the life of a peasant with just as eagerness as that of a Badshah. And let not this description fool you into thinking that the novels were just about good people doing good things. His novels are filled with intrigue, deception, politics, and feats of audacious cunning. He was not afraid to let the villains win either. All this goes hand in hand with the cruel worlds Hijazi portrays.
For any fan of historical fiction, this ought to be enough to make a novel addictive and attention-grabbing. But, there’s one final element that firmly cemented his spot as a true master of this genre.
Art of Climax
Very few writers, particularly in modern Pakistani literature, understand the art of building a climax. It takes effort to hold onto your cards, hide information, and push back against the temptation to give away the ending early. Many venerated writers of Pakistani fiction failed at this. This is why it is surprising that Hijazi so breezily accomplished it, and that too for decades.
Hijazi’s novels do not have climaxes that you would expect. Yes, the novels are full of epic set-pieces. Battles, sieges, hurricanes, duels, chases are all there in abundance in his novels. However, never has a Naseem Hijazi novel ever peaked at a battle or a major set-piece. These large-scale events are well-known and decided in history. Hijazi doesn’t want you to feel excited at them. We all know what happens in the events mentioned in the story. Spain fell, Mongols conquered everyone, and the British overtook India. His novel's climaxes are never about those particular events or moments, they are about people living through those moments.
The most unknowable, worrisome, and thrilling passages from his novels are centred around the personal arcs of individual characters. The background may well be a war or a mega-scale event but it is the individual character’s fate that he wants you to worry about. Has the protagonist lived through the bondage? Were they able to escape from the enemy’s grip? Will they manage to come out of this siege alive? These are the questions that are going through the reader’s mind as the novel goes through its final act.
In one of his famous novels Aaakhri Marka, set during Mahmud Ghaznavi’s ransacking of Somnath temple, Hijazi takes less time on the battle itself. Instead, he spends several pages making his readers dread about the dying protagonist who has been jailed in a highly secret chamber of the temple and whose odds of being discovered are nearly zero. So while the battle outside was important, for the protagonist the real horror is his own fate. And this horror is felt by the reader because while we know that Somnath was conquered, the reader has no way of knowing if the protagonist survived or not. There is simply no historical record available for that.
Hijazi pulls this trick several times, in many of his novels, where he makes the readers feel the real threat always present for his protagonists. The personal battle is made far more exciting than the larger battle going behind. Because history in Hijazi’s novels is not just what happened, it is the lived experience of the people who were present there.
A word about ideology
It is perhaps Naseem Hijazi’s misfortune that his own beliefs and ideologies are conflated with his work. He is accused of misguiding young people into a fall sense of glorification. This is an unfair accusation simply because this argument could be made just about any other historical fiction author too. Recreating the past in a story is a subjective experience, where an author’s own relation to the subject matter defines how they construct the story. Historical fiction is, by nature, an act of imagination that requires you to choose particular narratives of history.
One could argue that perhaps he was, in his own way, fighting back against the predominant narrative of his time. The narrative of history defined by the colonial powers. A past where the colonized peoples were always a side tale, decadent barbarians with no agency of their own, civilized by the West. The narrative that countless colonized people tried to challenge with stories of their own and continue to do so now, long after the colonizer has left. There are myriad ways in which this narrative was challenged for e.g. through the embrace of local languages, cultures, or religions, or any combination of all the various elements of what the formerly colonized people considered part of their identities.
The assertion of a golden age of Islam and the subsequent development of political Islamist ideology (that Hijazi is linked with) was in ways related to that response against the colonizer’s version of history. If yesterday’s political Islam also inspired today’s fundamental ideologies, then that is not to be blamed on a fiction writer. When Hijazi was writing about Islamic history, he definitely did not think that one day his fiction would be associated with dangerous ideas. What some of his fans or readers proclaim is not to be a sin that he should carry.
For Naseem Hijazi is, by far and large, the finest practitioner of Urdu historical fiction. His stories prompted many young readers into studying history and introduced them to the art of imagining the past. His own craft serves as a glowing sample of great story-telling and world-building. If you are a young person who wishes to write historical fiction or even fantasy in Urdu, you have Hijazi’s works as a ready-made blueprint. All you have to do is to pick up any of his several books. If you were to ask me, I’d recommend starting with Shaheen.