Khawaja Altaf Hussain Hali, a contemporary of Mirza Asadullah Khan Ghalib and Sir Syed Ahmed khan was born at Panipat in 1837. His father died when he was nine years old. Despite problems and setbacks in his early life, Hali continued his education of Arabic and Persian grammar and elementary logic at Delhi. In 1856, he got petty clerical post at Hisar. After the War of Independence, he lost his job and remained without employment for four years. This period provided him with enough time to study Islamic history, traditions, philosophy, logic and Arabic literature. During this period he began composing his poetry under the guidance of Ghalib. But he was more influenced by Nawab Mustafa khan Shaifta and he once remarked, ‘I learnt more from Shaifta.’ He remained in Shaifta’s services till 1869.
After his death, he joined Punjab Government Book Depot at Lahore to revise the text of Urdu translations of English works. The helped him to grasp the linchpin of European literature that influenced him a lot. In association with Maulana Muhammad Hussain Azad and being encouraged by the English officials of the Education Department, he found new school of Urdu poetry. He created a new mode in the thinking patterns of the intellectuals of the Punjab. With the help of Azad, he initiated the modern Nazam in the country and adopted realistic themes related to Indian life and background. His famous mathnawis, Munajaat-e-Bewa, Barkha rut and Hubb-i-watn belonged to this period. He also influenced the genre of ghazul and added an ethical tone to it.
Hali was greatly impressed by Sir Syed Ahmed khan whose Aligarh movement entailed educational and social reformation of the Muslim India. He began to support this movement in his articles in 1811. When Hali moved to Delhi and further came close to Sir Syed Ahmed Khan who asked him to write for the Muslims. He complied with his wish and composed musaddas maddo-jazar-i-Islam in 1879. Its subject matter was the ebb and flow of Muslims’ history. This work highly enriched the Urdu poetry and integrated the concepts like pan-Islamism. It became the prototype of later work in Urdu poetry, which highlighted the Muslim past, and their cultural revival. Hali joined the teaching staff of Anglo-Arabic school at Delhi but resigned from it in 1887 for being awarded pension by Hyderabad state and dedicated himself to study of books untill his death in 1914.
The Diwan of Hali’s Urdu ghazals was published in 1883, which revived the Sadi’s style, whose biography Hali published in 1884. The collected edition of Hali’s Arabic and Persian prose and verse appeared in 1914. Hali proved as a useful link between Ghalib and Iqbal. A tussle had started during that period between modern and ancient thought and it was Hali who advocated that we could stick to our traditional and conventional foundations and yet learn from modern cultures and societies. Hali deserved credit for instilling in the people an interest for modern studies and foreign literature. It was because of Hali and other intellectuals that people started taking interest in adopting fresh and modern trend in writing. In addition it was he who made literature a means for the uplift of social values.
As a biographer and critic he holds a high position in Urdu literature His biography of Ghalib, Yadgar-i-Ghalib appeared in 1884, and of the life and work of Sir Syed Ahmed Khan, Hayat-i-Jawaid, in 1901.
In Muqaddama-i-Sher-o-Shairi that covers more than 200 pages Hali has dealt with the art of poetry and summed up the essentials, which form the substance of all good poetry. It stands as a valuable book of criticism that makes an excellent survey of Urdu literature. Hali’s prose and poetry both were convincing, persuasive and true-to-life.
Such an influential and forceful man of letters died in 1914.