Syed Ali Raza, 1913-2005

My father died four years ago today. At the time, my sister Azra published a shorter version of this obituary in Karachi's leading English newspaper, Dawn:

–S. Abbas Raza


by Azra Raza

ScreenHunter_13 Jan. 05 09.10 Syed Ali Raza, Retired Director, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Pakistan, died peacefully in his sleep at Musa House, Karachi, on Wednesday, January 5th, 2005 at 2:25 a.m. The youngest of four children of Syed Zamarrud Hussain (1876-1932) and Hashmi Begum (1885-1956), he was born in Bijnor, India, on November 29th, 1913. His paternal lineage is Rizvi Syed, tracing back to the Prophet Muhammad through Imam Ali Raza whose descendent Shah Syed Hassan Rasoolnuma arrived in Bengal from Sabzwar, Iran, in 1355 AD. Apparently he so impressed the ruling monarch Badshah Ghiassuddin with his charm and intellect that the King gave him the hand of the Royal Princess in marriage. The ruler of Delhi, Mubarak Shah, then invited Shah Syed Hassan to his Court where he served faithfully by overpowering the rebellion mounted by a smaller Principality. He was rewarded by being given the properties of Jarcha and Chols in Bulandsheher, UP. Shah Syed Hassan’s grandson, Syed Shah Jalal distinguished himself even further through his exceptional scholarship, courage, intellect, and leadership such that both Hindus and Muslims viewed him with the respect and awe accorded a spiritual leader or Pir in his lifetime. His mausoleum in Bijnor became a site for worship and elaborate annual rites commemorate his many and varied accomplishments to this day. The maternal side of Syed Ali Raza’s lineage is Zaidi Syed, his maternal great-grandfather Syed Muzaffar Ali was attached to the Oudh court with extensive landholdings in Muzaffar Nagar. Stories of his extraordinary wealth circulated including the reputation of his wife for leaving behind enough gold and silver threads which fell from her exotic dresses, for the servants to fight over each time she left a party. Ali Raza’s parents lost 6 children (ranging in age from 1-16 years, named Zainul Ibad, Ali Murad, Ali Imjad, Ali Ibad, Sadiqa Khatoon and Muhammad Raza) to the epidemics of plague, influenza and typhoid over a decade. The extreme grief affected both parents, but especially disheartened Ali Raza’s father Syed Zamarrud Hussain, who simultaneously lost his 28 year old brother, 26 year old sister-in-law and their only child. Inconsolable and anguished by the deep sorrow of losing practically his entire close family, he left the ancestral home accompanied by his wife, for a more or less nomadic existence, wandering for several years through Dehradoon and smaller villages (Kandhra, Kirana, Shamli) of Muzaffar Nagar. Three more children were born during this period, and the family finally returned to Bijnor where Ali Raza was born in 1913.

Cataclysmic changes in the ancestral home including the untimely loss of family members in the prime of their lives to epidemics with consequential disenchantment and world-weariness, as well as Natural disasters such as repeated droughts resulted in demoralization and neglect of material properties to the extent that living there became unbearable for the Raza clan. Because of the family’s economic independence due to the extensive land-holdings until that time, pursuit of knowledge was mainly confined to a rigorous religious education for male members. A culture of knowledge for the sake of knowledge prevailed. Now, things changed so that education became a necessity for economic reasons as well. With the disastrous turn-around in the family’s financial and personal fortune, and the ascendancy of British control in India, Ali Raza’s parents were pragmatic enough to recognize the need for securing the best available secular education for their four surviving children. This was not possible in the village, so they took the bold step of saying goodbye for the final time to their ancestral home and migrated to the nearest larger city. By the time Ali Raza was 4 years old, his father had relocated the family to Lucknow, a city famous across the subcontinent for its high culture.

Ali Raza recounts in his autobiography, an incidence imprinted on his memory from this traumatic farewell. He had a number of pet geese that could not be moved to Lucknow. A decision was made by the family to leave these behind with his maternal Uncle. Ali Raza cried his heart out upon being forced to give up his beloved geese and for many years thereafter, carried a negative feeling in his heart about this poor Uncle.

The nuclear family comprising his parents and the four children arrived in Lucknow with practically no resources in 1917 and thereafter began two decades of a life full of economic hardship, but also full of deep family bonding, motivated by high ideals of intellectual and personal enhancement. Ali Raza’s parents worked tirelessly to instill in their children the idea that higher education and an impeccable work ethic was the only possible means of restoring the family back to its previous grandeur. At a time when Sharifzadis were predominantly instructed in the art of becoming perfect housewives, Ali Raza’s sister was admitted to a fledgling Girls school in Lucknow where English education was available. Similarly, the two boys were enrolled for formal education at the cost of unbearable hardship for the family. At this tender age, Ali Raza was struck by smallpox, and became deathly ill with suppurating lesions covering much of his face and body. Fortunately, his mother was herself a practitioner of Hikmat, and two of her brothers were practicing Hakeems in nearby towns. One of the Uncles came to stay with the suffering boy until his convalescence, and Ali Raza owes his early survival to this kindly relative. The scars left on his face by this scourge took years to dissolve.

The ultimate in frugal living as practiced by the Raza elders at this time, for the sake of ensuring enlightenment for their children through intellectual pursuits, made an indelible mark on Ali Raza’s psyche that lasted a lifetime. It is no surprise that of all the philosophers he studied, none impressed him more than Imam Ali and Marcus Aurelius. Both exhibited the extraordinary combination of physical courage and high intellectual and spiritual ideals while rejecting all things material. The roots and subsequent evolution of Ali Raza’s philosophy about what constitutes a meaningful life can be traced to what he experienced at this tender age. All three children in the Raza household immersed themselves in studies between 1917-1934, while the eldest sister got married, widowed, and returned to the family with two surviving daughters, all in the short space of a few years. This period of intense concentration on academic excellence was gratifying for both Ali Raza and his elder brother Hassan Raza, as they rapidly acquired a reputation of being unbeatable in academic competitions, remaining the topmost and most idealized students of their school throughout their stay. The two boys had to walk four miles to school and four miles back, making a total of an 8-mile long daily trek. This made the eventual acquisitions and ride on his bicycle a few years later, sweeter for Ali Raza than the ride provided by luxurious Mercedes and chauffer driven Limousines which a few years later routinely transported him around as a Government official.

During this period, both brothers received a solid grounding in Urdu, English, Persian and Arabic, not only in school, but through the family’s connections, by acquiring the patronage of some of the best known poets, writers and religious scholars of the time. Interestingly enough, all four Raza siblings were also involved in a number of physical and extracurricular activities. Bicycling or walking to school was one. In addition, the brothers became expert swimmers. In one famous competition, they crossed the River swimming with burning candlesticks carried on their feet. This competition required both speed and expert swimming in that the candle had to be burning when you reached the other side so that the swimmer could not splash any water, and had to make it fast before the candle ran out. Years later, when Ali Raza’s son became a high ranking officer in the Pakistan Air Force, and invited Ali and Hassan Raza to a poolside party at the Officer’s Club, much to the delight of the children, the brothers dived into the pool and demonstrated some of their expertise and enviable ease in the water. In addition to bicycling, walking and swimming, the Raza children were also deeply involved and interested in gardening. They started a trend in their new neighborhood in Lucknow by planting vegetables, a practice the family had transferred from their days in the Village. It remained a life-long habit for Ali Raza to wake up at the crack of dawn, and after his morning prayers, tend to his beloved Garden. He regularly astonished his visitors by demonstrating his uncanny knowledge of horticultural details.

The games that the family encouraged at home in Lucknow were often instructive and designed to be intellectually challenging. One of these fondly remembered by Ali Raza was called Ghalib-Maghloub. Participants had to memorize the unique system of assigning numbers to Urdu alphabets and play a game where the person acquiring tickets with words or pictures that translated to the highest total number in successive rounds would be declared the winner. Another was the more familiar game of Bait-bazi in which a couplet is recited by one contestant and the competitor has to provide a response with a couplet starting with the letter with which the previous one ended. The challenge was to recite couplets with rhymes that ended with rarely used letters. This game was subsequently made popular for the next generation by both Ali Raza and his wife as they divided their six older children into two teams and participated themselves in the game on a regular basis, especially during long evenings at home in Karachi, undisturbed by such distractions as television. This encouraged a spirit of healthy competition as well as an introduction to, and an everlasting love for poetry. Consequently, all seven of their children can recite even as adults, a large number of these verses committed to memory many years ago.

At the same time, the extended family was also acquiring distinctions in a variety of disciplines. For example, a maternal uncle, the honorable Murtaza Hussain Sahib was acknowledged not only as an extraordinary Hakeem, but also one of the most knowledgeable public speakers of his time, sought after for inspiring the audience with his eloquence and wisdom at Majalis-e-Aza that were celebrated in elaborate style in Lucknow. Another Uncle, Deputy Superintendent Police, Mr. Abul Qasim was awarded the title of “Khan Bahadur” by the British Government for his ingenuity and courage in catching Sultana Dako, the most notorious and feared dacoit of his time. Apparently, Mr. Abul Qasim first checked out the precise whereabouts of Sultana Dako alone by arriving at his suspected hiding place disguised as a beggar. Then having confirmed his presence by actually meeting Sultana Dako face-to-face, returned minutes later with the entire police contingent for a spectacular arrest. This daring and audacious act of bravery was reproduced in a widely popular theatrical production of the time.

Ali Raza graduated with high honors from Shia College, Lucknow in 1933 and on 11th June, 1934, Ali Raza departed from his beloved Lucknow forever to join the Central Secretariat stationed for the summer months in Simla. The following year, on March 1st, 1935, he was married to the youthful 15 year old Zaheer Fatima whose family had befriended Hassan Raza during his stay at Aligarh Muslim University. The groom arrived in Aligarh from Simla for his arranged marriage on a 24-hour leave. In accordance with the strict prevailing family custom, the bride, given the name Mubarak Dulhan, but known subsequently as Choti Dulhan made her home in the extended family of her husband, his mother, widowed sister, and his widowed sister's two young daughters. Zaheer Fatima was delighted to find a great collection of books on Urdu literature and Islamic studies in her new home and became a serious and enthusiastic student of both. Their first born daughter Durre-mansoor Raza died as an infant while their second born beloved son Aijaz Raza, died at two years of age, a trauma from which they never fully recovered. After losing Aijaz to an infectious disease, the young parents made two important decisions. First, they would only seek the latest and best Western medical treatment possible for their children instead of relying on hikmat or homeopathy. And second, that from that day on, they would never mourn the loss of anything material as long as their children were fine. Ali Raza and Zaheer Fatima subsequently had seven children who are all alive and well at the time of his death.

Ali Raza began his career as a Civil servant in 1934, in India and ended it honorably in 1970 in Pakistan. The intervening years were marked by the tumultuous break-up of the sub-continent when Ali Raza opted for Pakistan, arriving in his new home in Karachi on August 14th, 1947, as well as three wars between India and Pakistan in 1948, 65 and 71. He served in the Ministries of Agriculture, Rehabilitation and Works, and finally Foreign Affairs. He was greatly appreciated for his honesty, integrity and brilliance wherever he served. Ali Raza was justly proud of several accomplishments during these long years, the most seminal ones relating to a protection and just settlement of Evacuee property and the rehabilitation of immigrants from India. His sensitivity and compassion for both the departing Hindus and the freshly arrived, often devastated Muslim families from across the border was deeply admired and appreciated by both the suffering individuals and the bureaucratic officials. Ali Raza was awarded the Civil award of Tamgha-e-Khidmat for his selfless dedication in protecting and representing the Government of Pakistan with honor and courage.

Equally impressive were Ali Raza’s accomplishments in several other areas. A fine testament to his photographic memory is Ali Raza’s two volume auto-biography which is filled with astounding minutiae of the prevailing customs, geographic details, names and fine points of individuals or the dates and the precise times of various events and even such trivia as which seat in which row he occupied during each year of school starting with third grade. This well received autobiography is currently a part of the Graduate syllabus in several Indian and Pakistani Universities, and at least one student is pursuing a PhD degree on Ali Raza in Lucknow at this time. Upon his retirement, when the children wanted to donate an academic endowment in his name, he asked for it to be set up at Shia College, Lucknow. He was an expert calligrapher and wrote the entire Quran in his own pulchritudinous hand-writing during a three month monumental effort while serving in the Foreign Office in Islamabad. Because of his level of comfort in several languages, Ali Raza also acquired a reputation for translations between Urdu, English, Persian and Arabic. One of his finest accomplishments is the direct translation of Imam Ali’s Nahjul Balagha from Arabic into English, a publication which has undergone several printings, and remains in wide circulation not only in Pakistan, Iran and the Middle East, but also found in libraries across Europe and America. Other books translated from Arabic into English include Aqa-e-Syed Baqar Sadr Shaheed’s Bahas Haul-ul-wilaya, Hashim Maroof Hussaini’s Al Aaimmatul Isna-ashr, Mohammad Jawwad Mughannia’s Al-mazahibul Khamsa, Aqae Abdul Hussain Sharful Moosvi’s Abu Huraira, Murtaza Askari’s Muqadmate Miratul Uqool, and Aqaey Mehdi Shamsuddin,s Al-zaroof-us-siyasat-us Shooratul Hussain. The list of his translations from Urdu into English is too long, but some of his most beloved original contributions are those done at the request of his children such as the Tashreeh of Josh Malihabadi’s Wahdat-e-Insani and Hussain aur Inqilab, or Allama Iqbal’s Masjid-e-Qurtuba.

Ali Raza possessed very exact and detailed knowledge of whatever interested him. This included disciplines as varied as religion, poetry, gardening, philosophy, literature, homeopathy, horticulture and calligraphy. His command over Urdu language and literature was such that until the time of his death, his children and grandchildren would regularly consult him from long distances whenever faced with a difficult word or unfamiliar phrase. Many a time, one of his children would call him on the phone from the USA after unsuccessfully consulting several dictionaries, only to be instantly told not only the meaning of the word they were looking for, be it in Urdu, Persian or Arabic, but also its precise etymology and possible as well as confirmed usage. The amazing thing about Ali Raza was that whatever he claimed to know was always correct and precise, and if he did not know the answer to something you asked, he was the first to admit it. As a result, all who knew him felt great confidence in repeating whatever they heard from Ali Raza as they had full confidence in its authenticity.

Ali Raza lived a truly exemplary life dedicated to the pursuit of excellence and a steadfast rejection of all things material. He was a gentle and decent human being who served his country and his family with absolute devotion. All his children acquired high education exactly as he desired, and departed one by one to seek their own fortunes, six eventually settling down in the USA, but despite their children's constant pleadings, neither Ali Raza, nor Zaheer Fatima agreed to leave their beloved Pakistan. A little over fifty years ago, construction was completed on Gulistan-e-Raza, the first and only house Zaheer and Ali Raza built. His beloved wife Zaheer Fatima took her last ride to the hospital from this home and was buried on their 67th Wedding Anniversary, March 1st, 2002 in Karachi. Ali Raza became despondent after her death, and was himself struck down by a stroke, paralyzing one side of his body soon thereafter. Despite the infirmities of the last two years, he was intellectually fully alert till the day he died, continuing to work several hours a day, engaged in reading, writing, editing and publishing. While he was deeply loved and appreciated by not only his immediate and extended family, but also by the community, his last days were greatly brightened by the constant and saintly devotion of his son Air Vice Marshall Syed Javed Raza and family, particularly his daughter-in-law Arfa Raza and their children Zehra, Sakeena, Batool and Musa. He was laid to rest by Zaheer Fatima’s side on January 8th 2005.

Surood-e-rafta, baaz ayad kay nayad
Nasim-e-az Hijaz, ayad kay naiad
Sar aamad rozgar-e ein faqeeray
Dagar daana-e-Raaz ayad kay nayad


The Bereaved Children and Grandchildren:

Amera Raza, Ph.D., London, U.K.
Atiya Khan, M.D., (m. Dr. Tariq Jehangir Khan), Columbia, MD.
(Zaneb Beams, M.D., m. Jonathan Beams (Greatgrandchildren: Ada Beams, Samuel
Beams, Meena Beams and Elsa Beams), Akbi Khan)
Syed Tasnim Raza, M.D., (m. the late Dr. Sababhat Ahsan Raza) New York, NY.
(Syed Asad Raza, Alia Raza)
Syed Javed Raza (Air Vice-Marshal), (m. Arfa Raza), Karachi, Pakistan.
(Zehra Raza, M.D., Sakina Raza, M.D., Batool Raza, Syed Musa Raza)
Azra Raza, M.D., (m. the late Dr. Harvey David Preisler), New York, NY.
(Sheherzad Raza Preisler)
Sughra Raza, M.D., (m. Dr. James Edward Kolb), Boston, MA.
(Anjuli Raza Kolb, Jaffer Abbas Kolb)
Syed Abbas Raza, (m. Margit Oberrauch) New York, NY.