Urdu writing in its various primitive forms can be traced to Muhammad Urfi, Amir Khusro, and Kwaja Muhammad Husaini. The earliest writings in Urdu were in the Dakhni (Deccani) dialect. The Sufi-saint Hazrat Khwaja Banda Nawaz Gesudaraz is considered the first prose writer of Dakhni Urdu.
The first literary work in Urdu is that of Fakhruddin Nizami’s ‘mathnavi’ ‘Kadam Rao Padam Rao’ written during 1421 and 1434 A.D. Muhammed Quli Qutb Shah, the greatest of the Golconda rulers and a distinguished poet, is credited with introducing a secular content to the otherwise predominantly religious Urdu poetry.
Vali Dakhni was one of the most prolific Dakhni poets of the medieval period who developed the literary form of ‘ghazal’. Inspired by Dakhni’s ‘Diwan’ (collection of ghazals), the poets of northern India began to switch from Persian to Urdu, which they named as ‘Rekhta’. Sirajuddin Ali Khan Arzu and Shaikh Sadullah Gulshan were the earliest promoters of Urdu in North India. By the beginning of the 18th century, a more sophisticated variant of Urdu evolved in northern India through the writings of Shaikh Zahooruddin Hatim, Mirza Mazhar Jan-e-Janan, Khwaja Mir Dard, Mir Taqi Mir, Mir Hasan, and Mohammed Rafi Sauda. Sauda’s ‘Shahr Ashob’ and ‘Qasida Tazheek-e-Rozgar’ are masterpieces of Urdu literature.
The last Mughal emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar was a poet with a unique style, typified by difficult rhymes, excessive word plays, and the use of idiomatic language. He authored four voluminous Diwans. Shaik Ibrahim Zauq and Momin Khan Momin were leading Urdu poets of this period. Any description of Urdu literature cannot be complete without the mention of Mirza Asadullah Khan Ghalib (1797-1869) who is considered as the greatest of all the Urdu poets. In the post-Ghalib period, Daagh Dehlvi (1831-1905) emerged as a distinct poet, whose poetry was distinguished by its purity of idiom and simplicity of language and thought.
Modern Urdu literature from the last quarter of the 19th century onwards can be divided into two periods: the period of the Aligarh Movement started by Sir Sayyid Ahmed Khan and the period influenced by Mohammed Iqbal followed by the Progressive movement and movements of ‘Halqa-e-Arbab-e-Zouq’, Modernism and Post-modernism. However, Altaf Hussain Hali (1837-1914) is the actual innovator of the modern spirit in Urdu poetry. Shibli Nomani (1857-1914) produced several notable works like ‘Swanih Umari Moulana Rum’, ‘Ilmul Kalam’ and ‘Sher-ul-Ajam’. Other leading poets of the modern period include Akbar Allahabadi, Mohammed Ali Jauhar, Hasrat Mohani, Fani Badayuni, Shad Azimabadi, Jigar Moradabadi, Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Ali Sardar Jafri, Kaifi Azmi, Jan Nisar Akhtar, Sahir Ludhianvi, Majrooh Sultanpuri, Asrarul Haq Majaz, Dr. Kalim Ajiz, Makhdoom Mohiuddin, Khaleelur Rahman Azmi, Balraj Komal, Dr Mughni Tabassum, Akbar Hyderabadi, Waheed Akhter, Shaz Tamkanat, Sharyar, Zubair Rizvi, Mushaf Iqbal Tausifi and others.
The short story in Urdu began with Munshi Premchand’s ‘Soz-e-Vatan’ (1908). Premchand’s short stories cover nearly a dozen volumes including ‘Prem Pachisi’, ‘Prem Battisi’, ‘Prem Chalisi’, and ‘Khak-e-Parvana’. Mohammed Hassan Askari and Khwaja Ahmed Abbas are counted among the leading lights of Urdu short stories. The Progressive Movement in Urdu fiction gained momentum under Sajjad Zaheer, Ahmed Ali, Mahmood-uz-Zafar, and Rasheed Jahan. Urdu writers like Rajender Singh Bedi and Krishn Chander showed commitment to the Marxist philosophy in their writings. Saadat Hasan Manto, Ismat Chughtai, and Mumtaz Mufti form a different brand of Urdu writers who concentrated on the “psychological story” in contrast to the “sociological story” of Bedi and Krishn Chander. In the post-1936 period, the writers belonging to the ‘Halqa-e-Arbab-e-Zauq’ produced several good stories in Urdu. Ahmed Nadeem Qasmi, Upender Nath Ashk, Ghulam Abbas, Intezar Hussain, Surender Parkash, and Qurratul-ain Haider were other leading lights of the Urdu short story. In contemporary times several prominent fiction writers emerged in the city of Hyderabad, including Jeelani Bano, Iqbal Mateen, Awaz Sayeed, Kadeer Zaman, and others.
Novel writing in Urdu can be traced to Nazir Ahmed (1836-1912) who composed several novels like ‘Mirat-ul-Urus’ (1869), ‘Banat-un-Nash’ (1873), ‘Taubat-un-Nasuh’ (1877), ‘Fasana-e-Mubtala’ (1885), ‘Ibn-ul-Waqt’ (1888), ‘Ayama’ (1891) and others. Pandit Ratan Nath Sarshar (1845 – 1903)’s ‘Fasana-e-Azad’, Abdul Halim Sharar (1860-1920)’s ‘Badr-un-Nisa Ki Musibat’ and ‘Agha Sadiq ki Shadi’, Mirza Muhammed Hadi Ruswa’s ‘Umrao Jan Ada’ (1899) are some of the great novels and novelettes were written during the period. Niaz Fatehpuri (1887-1966) and Qazi Abdul Gaffar (1862-1956) were the other eminent early romantic novelists in the language. However, it was Premchand (1880-1936) who tried to introduce the trend of realism in Urdu novel. Premchand was a prolific writer who produced several books. His important novels include ‘Bazare-e-Husn’ (1917), ‘Gosha-e-Afiat’, ‘Chaugan-e-Hasti’, ‘Maidan-e-Amal’ and ‘Godan’. Premchand’s realism was further strengthened by the writers of the Indian Progressive Writers’ Association like Sajjad Zaheer, Krishn Chander and Ismat Chughtai. Krishn Chander’s ‘Jab Khet Jage’ (1952), ‘Ek Gadhe Ki Sarguzasht (1957), and ‘Shikast’ are considered among the outstanding novels in Urdu literature. Ismat Chughtai’s novel ‘Terhi Lakir’ (1947) and Qurratul-ain Haider’s novel ‘Aag Ka Darya’ are important works in the history of Urdu novels. Khwaja Ahmed Abbas, Aziz Ahmed, Balwant Singh, Khadija Mastur, and Intezar Hussain are the other important writers of Urdu in contemporary times.
Urdu was not confined to only the Muslim writers. Several writers from other religions also wrote in Urdu. Prominent among them are Munshi Premchand, Firaq Gorakhpuri, Pandit Ratan Nath Sarshar (‘Fasana-e-Azad’), and Brij Narain Chakbast (1882 – 1926), who composed ‘Subh-e-Watan’ and Tilok Chand Mahrum (1887-1966), who composed ‘Andhi’ and ‘Utra Hua Darya’, Krishn Chander, Rajindar Singh Bedi, Kanhaiyalal Kapur, Upendar Nath Ashk, Jagan Nath Azad, Jogender Pal, Balraj Komal, and Kumar Pashi.
Akbar Allahabadi (1846-1921) was a pioneer among the Urdu humourists and satirists. Majeed Lahori, Mehdi Ali Khan, Patras Bokhari (1898-1958), Mirza Farhatullah Beg, Shafiq-ur-Rahman, Azim Baig Chughtai, Ibn-e-Insha, Mushfiq Khwaja, Mushtaq Ahmed Yousifi, K.L.Kapur, Amjad Hussain, Mujtaba Hussain, Himayatullah and Talib Khundmeri are the other leading names in the field of humour.
Prof. Hafiz Mohammed Sheerani (1888-1945) devoted long years to the field of literary criticism. Others in this field include Shaikh Mohammed Ikram (1907-1976), Sayyid Ihtesham Hussain (1912 – 1976), Mohammed Hasan Askari, Ale-Ahmed Suroor, Mumtaz Husain, Masud Husain, Shams-ur-Rahman Faruqi, Gopichand Narang, Mughni Tabassum (b.1930) and others.
‘Farhang-e-Asifya’ is the first Urdu dictionary based on principles of modern lexicography, which was produced by Maulana Sayyid Ahmed Dehlvi (1846-1920) in 1892.