Prof. Khwaja Masud (1922-2010): Tribute to a Teacher Extraordinaire

Posted on January 30, 2010
Filed Under >Adil Najam, Education, People
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Adil Najam

Earlier this month (on January 17), Prof. Khawaja Masud – teacher, mathematician, philosopher, activist, progressive, and truly an intellectual’s intellectual – died in Islamabad.

I have been traveling internationally the last two weeks and did not hear of his demise till late yesterday. The fact that I got to hear of this only now makes the hurt caused by the news all the more intense.

Logically, I am sure he would tell me, it makes no difference whatsoever. But to think that yet another intellectual giant would have left us without one even hearing of his departure. Without having given him the respect of a silent prayer. Without the opportunity to take out a minute of contemplation on all that one had learned from him. Without pausing one’s own harried existence for just a second to look up in the air and saying, “Thank you, Professor Sahib. For all you did. And for all that you were!”

Prof. Khawaja Masud will be remembered by many, for many reasons. Professor of Mathematics, and Principal (1972-82) of Gordon College, Rawalpindi. Long-time author of the ‘Fueilleton’ column. Unrelenting trade-unionist and progressive activist. Close associate to Faiz Ahmed Faiz and others in what came known as the “Rawalpindi conspiracy.” And always, always, a concerned citizen.

Even though I never sat in his classes, to me he was, above all else, a teacher. I think that is what he would like to be remembered as. I never studied at Gordon college nor sat in his classes (although I have heard many a story of wonderment from those who did), but I always called him “Professor Sahib,” and not as a mere honorific. I called him that because I really did see him as a teacher. I suspect, he too saw me as a student.

I knew of him initially from his newspaper columns (Fueilleton) and because many in my family had, in fact, gone to Gordon College and had him as a teacher. I met him first sometimes in the 1980s at the office of The Muslim, where his column used to appear at the time and where I would (then in high-school) sometimes contribute statistical articles on cricket. I was too young and he was too revered for me to have long “chats” with him. But I would ask him about his latest columns and from him him I learnt so much about the intricacies of Faiz and Iqbal and Marx and Gramchi and Tolstoy and so much more. But most of all, I remember him always being kind to me and once even commenting to me on a short piece I had recently written (a ‘city diary’ on a new stamp, I think). I remember feeling like I was on seventh heaven: the great Khawaja Masud had not only read but commented on what I had written! Years later, I met him again in Islamabad after a long lapse. He asked me what I had been up to. I told him that I had then just finished my PhD at MIT and taken up a teaching position. The joy on his face and the warm hug he gave me could not have been more genuine or heartwarming. “There is no better profession in the world,” he said.

As always, he was right. And, now, he is no more. But he will be missed.

What I did realize was that I knew very little about his person. Some of these details are captured in this 2007 article on Prof. Khawaja Masud by Ashfaq Saleem Mirza on the occasion of his 85th birthday:

Khawaja sahib joined Gordon College, Rawalpindi, in 1944 as lecturer of mathematics and has not looked back since. Following great mathematicians, he did not confine himself to the field of mathematics but liked to wander in the vast horizon of philosophy and social sciences.

Khwaja Masud was born at Campbellpur (Attock) in 1922. His grandfather Allama Alifdin Nafees was a renowned scholar and a friend of Allama Iqbal. His father Khawaja Mahmood was a legal practitioner. The whole family was involved in the Freedom Movement and played active role in All India Kashmir Conference. Following Sir Syed and Iqbal they were trying to redefine character of the Muslim youth for coming challenges of independence. He got his early education from Scotch Mission School Daska and graduated from Murray College Sialkot. Finally he got his masters degree in mathematics from government college Lahore in 1944 and joined Gordon College Rawalpindi as a lecturer in the same year.

Those were turbulent times. The Muslim youth of the subcontinent were keenly observing various freedom and revolutionary movements of the world. People in the early 20th century gasped to see Czarist Russia changing into USSR and a point of reference for the workers of all countries to unite against colonialism and imperialism. Under the impact, youth was dazed. It was their romance, love and physical involvement. People left their homes, love ones, traditional comforts for unknown destinations never to return. Some of them were lost for ever after suffering from torments. At that time they were tasting ruthlessness of revolution and romanticism of the movement.

Prof Masud attracted by Marxist thought started reading Marxist literature along with Russian classics of Chekhov Dostoevsky, Tolstoy and Maxim Gorky. During this period he also joined study circles and inspired young students like artist Ali Imam and Abid Hassan Manto. During this period Democratic Student Federation was also launched and Progressive Writers Association was formed in Rawalpidni. He was also associated with the group of the Marxists, working with military officers for toppling the government of Liaquat Ali Khan. The incident is labelled as “Pindi Conspiracy Case” in the files of the government. He saw the group integrating and disintegrating and later on men like Gen Akbar, Maj Ishaq, Capt Zafarullah Poshni, Air Commodore Janjua, Col Latif Afghan, Sajjad Zaheer, Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Mohammad Hussain Ata, Sibte Hassan and many others were languishing in various jails of Pakistan.

During this period he was a great help for the promotion of trade unionist movement at Progressive Writers Association in Rawalpindi. Prof Sahib became principal of Gordon College in 1972 and retired in 1982. During period of Ziaul Haq he was transferred to Bahawalpur as punishment, but he never went to join there. As principal of the college he was strict disciplinarian. But in one of his earlier interviews to Ayesha Shoukat he said: “I never took any disciplinary action against any one teacher and student. I just disciplined myself. I had earned the right to be severe after teaching for 30 years and having taught their fathers”.

Apart from the present vulgarised connotation of the word enlightenment, Khawaja Sahib is the man of enlightenment in its true sense. He tries to approach readers through reason. All his articles in different journals and newspapers are testimony to this approach. Nothing is left from his scathing eyes but his criticism is positive and reflects character of a gentle teacher. In his articles he discusses everything from Heraclitus theory of change to postmodernist bias against metanarratives. He is founder member of Islamabad Culture Forum and Islamabad Philosophical Society. The former has been working for the last 15 years. Today his mind is a mixture of Marxian-cum-Gramician thoughts, Iqbal’s view of Islam and Sufism. He tries to justify one another with Marxist and Wahdatul Woojudi approach, which seems to be little bit confusing sometime for the common reader. But all these approaches are against orthodoxy, fundamentalism and obscurantism. He always served the cause of free inquiry and skepticism and who can learn without taking refuge in them.

A more personal tribute appeared, also in Dawn, immediately after his death, written by Mushir Anwar. How better to remember him than as a teacher. Who better to do so than one of his students:

Time, that he had in good measure and which he made rich with never being idle, was what he said our people as a nation had wasted with reckless abandon. And don’t think we will go unpunished for that, he assured me. He was in quite a rage sizzling in the intense stare he focused at me. You see, he said, you catch the corrupt who steal your money but you spare the leaders who have robbed the nation of its time. You can get back the stolen money, but not the hours and years you have been robbed of.

We sat side by side at a function that was organised a few weeks back by the Pakistan Academy of Letters to confer a posthumous award on Benazir Bhutto and another on a Swedish poet. The appointed hour had passed and the scheduled proceedings were still nowhere near starting. Khwaja Masud as usual was among the first who had arrived at the given time. His frustration was justified. In the eighty-eighth year of your life you don’t have many hours to waste.

I remember the diminutive professor entering the college gate on a bicycle that seemed a bit too high for him but he managed it well and got off with a flourish of his leg making an arch to avoid the back wheel. Bakhshi, the peon who watched over the bicycles, would take the two-wheeler from him and Khwaja Sahib would walk to the office and soon emerge with the register under his arm and station himself between the table and the black board to take the roll call. One by one the students would enter and take their seats.

He would consult his watch and pick the chalk. “We have forty minutes to do this exercise. If we finish early and have a few minutes we will talk about Spain and the resistance,” he would say and start off scribbling mathematical symbols that he said were sacred as they represented universal truths. “The priest also deals with truth but he lacks exactitude because he does not know the numbers,” he would conclude a lesson with some such words.

His class wasn’t a drab tutorial. He would break the monotony with comments on some current or past theme of interest that would shock or amuse us. This would keep us alert and on our toes because he could dart a question at us without notice. There was no indiscipline in his class; the naughty boys reserved their pranks for other classes because there was no time for nonsense in Khwaja Sahib’s class. He enjoyed a special position in the eyes of young students who knew him to be a political person, someone hunted by the government of the day. But he was clever and could always get around the law. Not only that. Even the American missionary college could not lay a finger on him in those days of MCarthyism. His detractors who were many sniggered and made snide remarks about his real loyalties. Khwaja Masud, very much in Faiz’s style, made no fuss about his critics.

A staunch Communist who swore by the book he didn’t give you the impression of being the typical revolutionary – unkempt, disheveled and forlorn. On the other hand, he was always properly dressed as a western gentleman, his hair parted neatly on the left, as if by mother sending her boy to school. The same system showed in his thought. Rational to the core he made his point logically proceeding dispassionately step by step in the Socratic manner.

The Soviet collapse had many convinced leftists disorientated. I think there was a period of quiet adjustment that he underwent trying to find causes and explaining consequences.

Then in the wake of Zia’s rule we saw him stumbling towards Iqbal in whose strong position on the dynamics of change and constant striving he found another offensive against the decadent system. He seemed to lean on mystic Islam. In his retirement years when he took to writing in the newspapers and spoke at literary and intellectual functions, one could not help admire his Sisyphusian doggedness.

Professor Khwaja Masud is no more but his lesson of tireless work for human progress and enlightenment will continue to inspire his many hundreds of students, friends, colleagues and comrades.

19 responses to “Prof. Khwaja Masud (1922-2010): Tribute to a Teacher Extraordinaire”

  1. Anwar Khan says:

    Here is my personal recollection of this great man:

    In 1993 after I had just completed my engineering degree, I had felt the appetite of enjoying the company of these great intellectuals and I would even go and just request to listen to him for some time on some topic. He had never turned me down. One such day when I was sitting in his home in F-8/1, listening to Khawaja Sahib for a couple of hours as he tried to explain existence of God and the purpose of human existence and talked about Faiz Sahib’s memories and so on. His phone rang and he was told that Mushahid Husain was online and wanted him to talk to Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif as NS was trying to muster the support of intellectuals at the fag end of his first prime ministership. And I can never forget his response. He refused to talk to the sitting prime minister saying he is busy with his student and at this moment, it is more important than talking to the prime minister. I could not believe it then, and I cherish this memory to the day.

  2. readinglord says:

    I just learned about his demise and wonder why I could not get this sad news earlier. Khawja Sahib was indeed a legend, a beacon of light, whose light will ever give us hope and strength to fight against the darkness that has engulfed this land of Jinnah, Iqbal and Faiz. I pray for his soul to rest in peace though he does not need my prayer.

  3. ASAD says:

    Wow. Bravo Watan Aziz. Very well said.

    This is why ATP is so special. Even the comments here are so powerful that posts on most other blogs are not. This reminds me of teh Blog Awards in which some of us have voted for ATP: og-pakistaniat/

    Do we know when the results will be announced?

  4. Watan Aziz says:

    No profession is more honorable than that of a teacher.

    May the Khaliq bless this teacher and comfort the family.

    And the lack of coverage about good people is because fear sells, hate delights and ignorance is evident. People form queues to peddle hatred. Helpless are hapless witnesses.

    But since those who knew him best have oft mentioned Khawja Sahib’s communist past and the Rawalpindi Conspiracy, perhaps we should pause and look back to the future. See if there are any lessons, one more time.

    First, that good, honest and decent people somehow all worked cross purposes. These patriots in the end undermined each other and worked against the very nation they all loved so much. Laws were broken; and then later circumvented for the trials.

    Second, the conspirers of Pindi believed in their own goodness. After all, they were conspiring against the original duo conspirers in Liaqat and Ghulam Muhammad who had already undermined Jinnah and his ideals. But was it error in judgement because they themselves did not believe in law and order and the constitutional process?

    And these conspirers in turn spawned the next duo of the conspirers in Iskandar and Ayub and then the train gains momentum. We have on hand the result of collective failures leading up to the most recent usurper.

    Third, the never failing law of unintended consequences shows up. The prosecutor in this case was none other that the future co-conspirator of the evil-usurper Zia, the infamous A. K. Brohi himself. No evil has been worse than the evil of this duo for they managed to co-mingle the faith of good people of Pakistan with their own misguided beliefs.

    Fourth, those good people, who seemingly “thwarted the communist plot” in turn provided support to those who did not believe in equity and justice as a right; did not believe in law and order as a process. And while they got their temporary back slapping and chest thumpings, what was really achieved in the end? Does the report card grade the past performance as good? Was it the correct solution? Do they see the error in supporting those who did not (and do not) believe in equity and justice, law and order? Will they do it again?

    Will the audacity of hope for equity and justice be successful this time around?

    I sure do pray.

    Yes, and here I go again with my ek-tara of equity and justice, law and order, democracy and freedom.

    Good, decent, honest and hardworking people of Pakistan deserve nothing less. I think given the posts here about him, Khawaja Sahib would agree.

    My tribute to Khawaja Sahib, a teacher I did not know.

  5. Lateef says:

    Very powerful write-up. I wish all teachers had students who gave them such respect.

    May he rest in peace.

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