by: Nadir Ali

The News Karachi Edition

Sheikh Muhammad Sharif Sabir is, perhaps, the best living scholar of Punjabi language in Pakistan. He has edited at least half a dozen of Punjabi classics ranging from Puran Bhagat in 1972 to Heer Waris Shah in 1986.

The latter work took ten years of rigorous hard work before getting published and is valued throughout the Punjabi reading world. Had there been no editors like Sheikh Abdul Aziz, barrister-at-law, and Sharif Sabir, the future scholars of Heer would not have known the real Waris Shah from the spurious one.

For the past one hundred years, two thirds of the popular version of the book consisted of an admixture of the original and the spurious. While the version edited by Sheikh Aziz retained what appeared to be the best version after a scientific comparison of all the old manuscripts, Sharif Sabir broke new ground.

For the first time, he restored those obscure words to the book which had never been deciphered as the script changed from an Arabic/Persian one to that of Urdu of Fort Williams College. Sharif Sabir traveled all over Punjab, especially to places where the old dialect was still spoken; he went to see the traders and the craftsmen understand the terms used by Waris Shah while describing their trades and professions; he went to snake-charmers to learn about snakes; he visited scholars of folklore and consulted many a book on mythology to understand the background of the myths and the stories alluded to by Waris Shah.

All the books Sharif Sabir has edited -- Heer Waris Shah, complete poetry of Bulleh Shah and Sultan Bahu and most recently Saiful Maluk of Mian Muhammad Bakhsh -- have one outstanding feature in common. All of them carry a glossary of difficult words. No other book in Punjabi, other than those written on the Granth Sahib, contain comprehensive glossaries like the ones found in the works he has edited.

By dint of his training and profession, Sharif Sabir is well-equipped to carry out the kind of work he is doing. He holds masters degrees in Urdu, Persian and Punjabi and has taught all the three languages for over 50 years. Even at the age of 76, despite failing health and the terrible death of his wife, he traveled all over Punjab and Azad Kashmir, looking for the old manuscripts of Saiful Maluk.

Personally, I consider his translation of Kashful Mahjub of Ali Hajveri Data Gunj Bakhsh as his most remarkable work after his version of Heer Waris Shah. Thirty years ago, when Nicholson's translation of Data Gunj Bakhsh's book was republished locally, it read like any bad translation. This is not to say that Nicholson was a bad scholar. Probably, he was the best scholar of the Persian language in Europe in the golden age of orientalism. But the problem lay in the fact that Ali Hajveri, who lived during the 11th century AD, had used some obscure words of Turkish and Persian origin which were used during those days but are no longer extant. Similarly, the book also contains some complex terms about mystic practices and precepts. This was why Nicholson, the great orientalist who also translated Rumi and Iqbal, left some passages of Kashful Mahjub as untranslatable.

After six years of rigorous research, Sharif Sabir has been able not only to solve all those Sufi riddles, but also produce what can be called the best translation of Kashful Mahjub in any language.

But does anyone care if Sharif Sabir has made Data Gunj Bakhsh's only written work and his complete philosophy of life accessible for the first time to everyone interested? In a country where government is more interested in making money out of the great saint's name and reputation, ignorance has become an established way of life. No wonder that this ignorance of the people is what every government thrives on. I may add that a country where scholars like Sharif Sabir are neither read nor cared for, is unfit for civilised existence.

Who cares what Ali Hajveri has to say about a place where injustice prevails? Like other Punjabi Sufi poets, he will become controversial if I were to quote him and say that a city where justice is not done is not a fit place to offer your prayers.

Rewarding the undeserving, ignoring their merit and true worth, has destroyed our system of education and our society at large. The rise of the worthless and the mediocre is the hallmark of every aspect of life around us.

In these columns, I had lamented about the life and death of Professor Asaf Khan, who was never rewarded in his life. But I have seen those getting rewarded for their services to the Punjabi language who do not know a thing about it.

So I don't think that my lament about the miseries of Sharif Sabir Sabir will help ameliorate the plight of the great scholar. He was given the Pride of Performance and a paltry sum of Rs 70,000 for his monumental work Heer Waris Shah. In my opinion, he instead deserves a permanent stipend. But Sharif Sabir is neither bitter nor has he ever complained. His patience and child-like enthusiasm keeps him going.

All he wants now is to be able to tell the readers, on the occasion of Mian Mohammed Bakhsh's Urs on June 25, that Saiful Maluk has been printed and will shortly be available at Kitab Trinjan, Mian Chambers, 3 Temple Road, Lahore.

That is only if you are interested. Otherwise, perhaps we don't need scholars like him and don't care to know whether he has come up with another scholarly book.