Khwaja Altaaf Hussein Haali (1837 - 1914), the famous poet, prolific scholar and Urdu critic, was born on 11th November, 1837 in Panipat. Haali came from an economically backward family. He lost his mother just after his birth and his father at the age of 9. He was brought up by his elder brother and sisters. Even though he was not properly educated, he managed to get a good knowledge of Urdu, Persian and Arabic. He was married against his wishes to his cousin Islam Ul Nisha at the age of 17. After marriage, in 1854 he went to Delhi and got himself enrolled in Haseen Baksh's Madrassa near the Jama Masjid. There he studied languages like Urdu, Persian and Arabic and got interested in poetry. He started frequenting the Mushairas (gathering of poets) and gradually became known.
Haali returned to Panipat in 1855 and remained there for an year. In 1856 he got a job in the office of Deputy Commissioner, Hissar. After the revolt of 1857 he left the government job and returned to Panipat and studied there for four more years. But his deteriorating financial position forced him to look for a job. In 1861 Nawab Mustafa Khan of Jahangirabad employed him to teach his son. The Nawab was himself a a skilled poet and critic of Urdu & Persian and wrote under the name of Shefta. Haali was further attracted to poetry under his influence. Till 1869 he remained in Delhi and continued writing his poetry. Then he met the legendary Urdu poet Mirza Ghalib. Ghalib was not in the habit of encouraging each and every budding poet, but when he heard Haali's Shers (Urdu couplets) he liked them a lot and encouraged Haali to continue writing poetry. In one of his shers, Haali wrote that though he respected Mirza Ghalib and was guided by Nawab Shefta, he benefited most from Mir, whose style he deeply admired.
From Delhi he shifted to Lahore and got a job as a supervisor in the government book depot. There he had to help in correcting Urdu books translated from English. During this period he picked up a good working knowledge of English and was exposed to the modern literary activities of Europe. Thereafter his poetry started taking a new shape and form unknown to Urdu literature. He remained in this job for 4 years. Then he returned to Delhi and took a job as a teacher in an Arabic school. Here he met the famous Sir Saiyyad Ahmad Khan, the founder of Aligarh Muslim University and they became close friends within a short while. In 1886 his book Musaddas-e-Haali was published. This work made Haali famous in Urdu literature. Sir Saiyyad Ahmad Khan had this to say of Haali's book, "If Khudda (God) asks me what I have brought with me, I will say I have brought Musaddas written by Haali."
When the Prime Minister of Hyderabad visited the University in 1888, Sir Saiyyad requested him to offer a fellowship to Haali. This was granted, keeping in mind Haali’s contribution towards the enrichment of Urdu Literature. Haali began on an allowance of Rs. 75, which was increased to Rs. 100 per month. Haali was a person, who was satisfied with limited means. On receiving the fellowship, he left for Panipat and devoted himself completely to the service of Urdu. The Government of India recognized his contribution and in 1904 he was honored with the highest title of ‘Shamshul ulema’.
His simplicity, honesty, meekness and religiosity were exemplary. He never caused pain to others but was very concerned for the progress of his fraternity. He did not touch wine nor was he attached to love and beauty, but essentially wrote Ghazals due to the association of greats like Ghalib and Shefta. He was concerned about the miseries faced by nobles, during and after the Sepoy Mutiny. His prose and poetical works are as follows: ‘Tiriya Ke Masmoom’, ‘Majaalis Ulnisa’, ‘Mazaamin-e-Haali’, ‘Hayaat-e-Saadi’, ‘Muqadame Sher-o-Shairi’, ‘Yaadgaar-e-Ghalib’, ‘Hayaat-e-Javed’, ‘Masnaviyaat’, ‘Manajaat-e-bewa’, ‘Chupki Daad’, ‘Shikwaye Hind’, ‘Musaddas-e-Haali’, ‘Deewaan-e-Haali’ and ‘Roobaiyaat’.
His most important work was 'Muqadmae sher-o-shayari' written as a preface to his collection of poetry. Ahmad Sarwar called it "the first manifesto of Urdu poetry". There are about 116 Ghazals composed by him, which consist of about 1300 shers. Haali was known for his love of welfare of Muslims. His death on September 30, 1914, was a serious loss to the world of Urdu. He was buried in Panipat in the courtyard of Bu Ali Shah Kalandar's dargah. On his marble grave are inscribed these words 'Yahi hai ibadat yahi dino iman, ke kaam aaye duniya mein insan ke insan". A school was established in his memory at Panipat. His centenary was celebrated in all the big cities in 1935.