The accidental Arabic scholar

Born on May 15, 1936, Syed Muhammad Munawwar Nainar’s introduction to Arabic was almost accidental, and was largely due to the efforts of his father, Dr. S.M. Hussain Nainar, a professor of Arabic, Urdu and Persian at the Madras University (from 1927-’54) and a writer of many scholarly texts on the Arab and Islamic heritage of southern India.

It was at his father’s behest that the young Munawwar Nainar was sent to Cairo University in 1955 for the four-year Bachelors degree in Arabic, even though his initial academic performance in school was far from promising.

Munawwar Nainar (standing, foreground, fourth from left), as a young boy with his uncle S Kadir Mohamed Nainar and father Dr. S. M. Hussain Nainar, in an undated family photograph. Also seen (from left) Anwar Nainar, Shekha Farhana, Farouq Nainar, Ibrahim Nainar, and Amjad Nainar, holding his brother Ashraf
College years

With the help of external tuitions, Munawwar spent the first year of his BA as an ‘observer’ student, attending class, but exempt from writing exams. As his fluency increased, Munawwar Nainar was subsequently able to complete the course and graduate in 1959 with a ‘Jayyid’ (Good) grade from the Cairo University.

Munawwar followed this up with a Masters in the language from Delhi University, while working as a part-time faculty member at Aligarh Muslim University’s Department of Arabic.

Cairo University class photo 1959
Munawwar Nainar touring the Pyramids of Giza in Egypt as a student, 1950s.

He was selected by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to serve as Press Secretary at the Indian Embassy in Saudi Arabia under the tenure of Ambassador T.T.P. Abdullah from 1969-’72. Upon his return to India, he helped to establish the Department of Arabic at the then-nascent Jawarharlal Nehru University in 1972 in New Delhi, where he worked for 10 years.

In the early years of his career, Munawwar Nainar also worked as a news reader in the Arabic service of All India Radio, and briefly as a stringer for Voice of America. Skilled in oral and written translation, he was picked by the Indian government to serve as the official interpreter on many ministerial and presidential state visits.

Munawwar Nainar (seated, fourth from left) with colleagues and students of the Department of Arabic, School of Languages, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi circa 1980.
Literary work

Dr. Nainar worked in various capacities in Qatar in the Ministry of Religious Affairs (Awqaf) and Education from 1982 to 1996, and after retirement, was based in the Qatari capital Doha until 2013. He is currently living in Tiruchi, in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu. Dr. Nainar’s Ph.D thesis (from Jawaharlal Nehru University in 1980) was on the subject of Arabic loanwords in Hindi, Urdu and Tamil, a tome that was translated into Arabic in 2011 by Qatar’s Ministry of Culture.

He has also translated Faith, a handbook on Islam for the Awqaf ministry, besides working in the Ministry of Education’s Scholarships Department (UK section) for over 20 years.

Perhaps it is his own triumph over academic weakness that keeps spurring Dr. Nainar to teach Arabic to as many people as he can. His mastery over the language has helped him to meet not just state leaders and intelligentsia from all over the Arabic-speaking world, but also to educate many students in the language and help them to find employment on his own initiative.

He was a founder member of DPS-Modern Indian School, Doha. Dr. S.M. Munawwar Nainar was presented with the Lifetime Achievement Award by the All India Association of Arabic Teachers and Scholars in New Delhi on March 10, 2016.

An early photo of Dr. Nainar and his family (wife Rayhana, and children Umaima, Yasir and Nahla).