This article contributes to scholarship on Muslim humanities, Islam in modern South Asia, and the Urdu literary tradition in colonial India. It does so by contextualizing and closely reading Ashraf ʿAlī Thānavī’s (1863–1943) commentary on the Dīvān of the fourteenth-century Persian poet Ḥāfiz̤. Unlike his modernist contemporaries, Ashraf ʿAlī does not read Ḥāfiz̤ through the prisms of social reform or anti-colonial nationalist struggle. Rather, in his capacity as a Sufi master, he approaches Ḥāfiz̤’s Dīvān as a mystical text in order to generate insights through which he counsels his disciples. He uses the commentary genre to explore Sufi themes such as consolation, contraction, annihilation, subsistence, and the master-disciple relational dynamic. His engagement with Ḥāfiz̤’s ġhazals enables him to elaborate a practical mystical theology and to eroticize normative devotional rituals. Yet the affirmation of an analogical correspondence between sensual and divine love on the part of Ashraf ʿAlī also implies the survival of Ḥāfiz̤’s emphases on the disposability of the world and intoxicated longing for the beloved despite the demands of colonial modernity.
This essay proposes to energize the mission of the humanities by radically globalizing their subject matter and methods, taking inspiration from the world’s monumental archive of humanistic creativity over 5000 years of recorded experience. It advocates for Comparative Global Humanities as a crucial complement to the more presentist new humanities fields of medical, environmental, or public humanities. Comparative Global Humanities aims to be inclusively global in terms of subject matter and participants, conceptually comparative, and based on rigorous historical and philological research. A Global Humanities for the 21st century is no antiquarian endeavor, but a head-on response to the greatest challenges of our times: systemic racism, inequality, and fundamentalisms, which are rooted in the unresolved aftermath of wars, colonization, and violence, and use classical heritage for nationalist propaganda. To create more equal societies in the present we need to create more equality for other pasts – and learn from all they offer.