Ahmad Jan

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Ahmad Jan, Dr. Ali Jan
Published in Khyber.ORG on Friday, September 16 2005 (http://www.khyber.org)


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Ahmad Jan

Dr. Ali Jan

Founder of Modern Pashto Literature

Publishing Date: Friday, September 16 2005

History of Pashto cannot be considered complete without mention of one notable personality, Ahmad Jan, who laid down the foundations of Modern Pashto Literature in Pre-Partition India.

Qazi Ahmad Jan, whose family came from Ghazni in Afghanistan was the son of Qazi Abdur Rahman Khan Muhammadzai, who himself was a renowned scholar of his times in the then Kingdom of Kabul, in the 19th century. The ruler of Afghanistan also considered him a scholar-saint, and the greatest doctor of law and religion in his realm. He had command over Arabic, Hebrew, English, Persian, and Pashto languages. He became the first to translate the Old Testament (Hebrew) into Pashto and also translated John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress' in his lifetime among other notable works. (Originals available in University of Cambridge Library, UK)

The turbulent events in Afghanistan took such a turn that after another revolt in the Kingdom, Qazi Abdur Rahman Khan had to leave the Royal Court permanently and settled in this part of the land with his family, which now forms a part of present day Pakistan. Some sources say he moved to Village Tangi in Hashtnagar (Charsadda) first, while others say he set roots in Bannu as soon as he arrived. However, this is for certain he is buried in Bannu where he died in 1899 at the age of 81, according to his family sources.

Ahmed Jan was perhaps also born in Bannu. Not much is known about his early life but one can safely assume that having such a learned man as his own father may have developed an early interest in languages.

He witnessed those tumultuous years when the British were engaged in a furious struggle to secure 'The Frontier' from the clutches of many powers that surrounded the region. To maintain a firm grip on this area, the British devised a plan to seek help from the natives in order to learn their language and understand their culture and practices. A need arose to hire English-speaking translators and thus some locals made their way into British ranks. It might not be know to many but these also included the likes of Sahibzada Abdul Qayyum Khan who was bestowed with titles of 'Nawab' and 'Sir' and who would later be known for his contributions in founding Islamia College Peshawar. One such individual who gained instant fame among the British officers who wanted to learn Pashto was Ahmad Jan. He got selected at a relatively young age as translator and later began his career of teaching Pashto to British Officers in Peshawar. All officers were required to pass a tough military examination of Pashto language interpretership. In order to prepare for it they had to undergo a rigorous course, which at times took a year and a half to finish. One military officer M.C.A Henniker, who later rose to the rank of Brigadier in the Royal British Army writes about him in his famed book 'Memoirs of a Junior Officer' Published by William Blackwood & Sons 1951. (There is a complete chapter about their association, but for convenience only a few lines are reproduced here):

'I consulted my friends about a teacher, and all with one accord recommended Ahmad Jan...He was charming in every way and his methods of teaching quite unique.'

Henniker further writes:

'...he (Ahmad Jan) had taught Wavell, O'Connor, Monty and the Auk - though they were not so famous then.'

Indeed, many officers who were privately coached by Ahmad Jan later rose to the highest positions in the Royal Indian Army. He is also mentioned in Field Marshal Sir Archibald Wavell's personal diary or journal,which got published after his death. ('Wavell - The Viceroy's Journal. Oxford University Press 1973). During Wavell's last visit to Peshawar as a Viceroy he specially met Ahmad Jan - his old teacher. In the Journal, Wavell refers to him as Munshi Ahmad Jan. (Early on in his career Ahmad Jan had passed The Munshi Certification Examination in teaching with Credit and therefore began to be known as 'Munshi of Peshawar'.)

The end of the Third Anglo-Afghan war in 1919 and Khilafat saw a renewed surge in revivalist and reformist movements within the Pathans - or Pashtuns or Pakhtuns as they are often called. Leaders like Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan and others emerged on the political fronts. The founding of Islamia College Peshawar was another landmark event in the field of higher education for under privileged students. Sensing the need for reform among the Pathans, Ahmad Jan started contributing essays in the first ever Pashto language magazines: 'Sarhad' and 'Afghan' which he helped to revive during the same period (in 1920s) Some of his early pieces treated the subjects of backwardness of Pathans in higher education, their zest for litigation and blood feuds, and the mischief caused by the 'malangs', 'qalandars' and faqirs' and other superstitious beliefs etc.

He took up serious writing at a time when negligible Pashto prose literature existed. In the words of Col. C.L Peart, Secretary Board of Examiners (Simla - 1930):

It was archaic and full of flowery Arabic and Persian expressions.

Dr Sher Zaman Taizi, a renowned researcher and formerly affiliated with BBC Afghan Education, in Rise & Rise of Pashto (Dawn 2001) notes:

'There was a lull in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries until the emergence of the Ahmad trio (Mir Ahmad Shah Rizwani, Maulvi Ahmad and Munshi Ahmad Jan). Mir Ahmad Shah Rizwani compiled two books for the course of Pashto Honours introduced in the University of Punjab during the last quarter of the nineteenth century. The famous prose work of Munshi Ahmad Jan, Da Kissa Khane Gap (The gossip of Qissa Khawani) was published in the second edition with introductory notes by C.L. Peart, dated January 22, 1930.'

Ahmad Jan introduced a new style of writing which was essentially idiomatic, modern and at the same time retained it's natural flow. In a few more years he had authored a number of books, some of them deserve special mention here owing to their 'ever-green' popularity: Apart from Da Kissa Khane Gap and it's English Translation which became the Official Textbooks for Military Officers, he also wrote: Hagha Dagha and it's English Translation, Tarikh-i-Afghanistan, 'How to speak Pushtu', glossaries of Sultan Mahmud-i-Ghaznawi and Ganj-i-Pushtu etc etc. Among his numerous translations: from Urdu include many works done by the likes of Hafiz Jullundhri etc. and from English include books such as Sir Thomas More's timeless classic 'Utopia' etc

His efforts won him wide spread acclaim and his stature increased with the publication of a book in Afghanistan about the greatest writers and poets of Pashto published by 'Da Kabul Tolana Amoomee Matba' in 1321 A.H. It gave his biography and placed his name firmly among the leading Pashto writers of all time.

As a token of recognition for his contributions in the genres of Pashto short story, novel (romance, fantasy) drama, essay, history, grammar, figures of speech, biography, poetry and columns etc the British Indian Government bestowed him with the titles of 'Khan Bahader' (K.B) and Member of the British Empire (M.B.E). Customarily, in NWFP such titles came with benefits in the form of lands or monetary awards, but Ahmad Jan politely declined to accept any rewards and agreed to retain the title only. To him, satisfaction earned from devotion to one's work alone was enough and above any material gains.

He was offered a senior post in the Cantonment Board of Peshawar where he displayed some of his, so far unrevealed, administrative skills and served the common people in their day to day problems. He continued to teach at the same time but his primary passion remained in advancing Pashto language.

Ahmad Jan continued to offer his services after creation of Pakistan. By now aging and ill health had started to show their signs on him. He restricted his physical activities and remained deeply involved with scholarly works and preferred the privacy of his library-cum-study at home, which at one time housed more than 10,000 books. During the last days of his life, he seldom came out of his study and would remain inside days and nights working hard on some unfinished books of Pashto. He died peacefully at home on 16 Oct 1951, three days after suffering from a stroke. He is buried in his family's graveyard in Peshawar Cantonment. Thousands attended his funeral, which was a testimony of people of Peshawar's affection for him. He had by then become a household name as many Pashto dramas and plays written by him were aired daily on Peshawar Radio.

Elderly people of Peshawar, from before partition still remember him fondly and respect him for his contributions. He was an honest man who always stood by his principles. His teaching career spanned more than half a century, which is unparalleled. He preferred to keep a low profile and stayed away from politics. In this manner, he was able to devote his entire energies to the development and advancement of Pashto up to the time of his death. Being a strong advocate of female education in Pathans, he set a personal example. In the days when the conservatives frowned upon even primary level education for girls, he sent his own two daughters (Hajra Jan and Asma Jan) to Ludhiana and Lahore respectively to become doctors. Of a total of seven sons he had, one became a civil servant (Commissioner Mohammed Jan Khan) and four later served in Pakistan Army (Brig. Mahmood Jan, Col. Mustafa Jan, Maj. Murtaza Jan and Col. Shahid Jan.)

A collection of books and documents dating from the late 19th century and early 20th century has recently been uncovered from his ancestral home. It consists of over 1000 old and rare books written in Pashto, English, French, Persian, and Hindustani etc. Among them are few unfinished drafts of his personal unpublished works. Also found with these are several letters which provide an interesting glimpse into the personal lives of his fellow Pashto writers and high ranking officials, which included Viceroys and Commander in Chiefs of Indian Army. There are letters by Lord and Lady Wavell addressed to him. The works have been salvaged and are in the process of being preserved. They are providing new findings and would be made useful at an appropriate forum later on so that his memory can be revived for our future generations.

In the end, I take enormous pride in mentioning that Qazi Ahmad Jan was my Grandfather.


Dr. Ali Jan

(The writer is a graduate of the Aga Khan University and a Medical Doctor by profession.
He is also part of Sarhad Conservation Network - a Peshawar based advocacy group
concerned with the preservation of Environment, Culture and Heritage of NWFP, Pakistan)

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Ahmad Jan, Dr. Ali Jan
Published in Khyber.ORG on Friday, September 16 2005 (http://www.khyber.org)