New Age Islam
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Islam, Women and Feminism ( 11 Dec 2009, NewAgeIslam.Com)

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Maulvi Mumtaz Ali’s book on women’s rights: First feminist interpretation of Qur’an in the Indian subcontinent

Maulvi Mumtaz Ali –A Nineteenth Century Advocate of Women’s Rights

Asghar Ali Engineer

It is generally thought that movement for women’s rights began with western educated people and in 19th century. But very few people know about Maulavi Mumtaz Ali Khan, a traditional ‘alim, product of Darul ‘Uloom Deoband who was very enthusiastic supporters of gender equality. There are two things to be noted here: one, he was a traditional ‘alim and was not under the influence of western thought and two, he was advocating gender equality purely on the basis of Islamic traditional sources i.e. Qur’an and hadith.

The Maulavi was enthusiastic supporter of women’s rights and was one of the colleagues of Sir Syed. However, Sir Syed had lot of troubles on his hand due to his campaign for a modern educational institution for north Indian Muslims. He was facing stiff resistance from orthodox ‘ulama and did not want more trouble and so he advised Mumtaz Ali Khan not to publish his book Huququn Niswan the manuscript of which he showed to the Syed. However, the Maulavi was very enthusiastic about women’s rights and wanted to educate Muslim men and women and went ahead with its publication.

Huququn Niswan, I dare say without any exaggeration, is like charter of rights for Muslim women. Mumtaz Ali Khan proves from Qur’an through his interpretations of relevant Qur’anic verses that men and women have equal rights and that women have no authority over women, as believed by Muslim men. This book, because of its advocacy of women’s rights, soon went into oblivion and was not available.

I obtained its copy from a US library and published it. It must be read by all Muslim women to get duly armed with Qur’anic arguments to fight for their case. He had married to a woman who was not educated but he not only educated her but also made her editor of a women’s magazine which had become quite popular in those days. This magazine, besides educating women in their rights also made them aware of contemporary events, especially socio-cultural.

Maulavi sahib’s arguments were quite ingenious based on his interpretation of Qur’anic verses. He took all traditional arguments by which men asserted their superiority over women. He called such superiority as mardon ki jhuti fazilat (false superiority of men ). For example men usually argued that if women are equal to men why Allah did not grace any woman with prophethood (nubuwwat)?

Mumtaz Ali Khan gives quite an ingenious reply to this argument. He says according to tradition there have been one lakh and twenty four thousand prophets and we know names of only about a dozen prophets. How can then we say there were no women prophets at all unless we know all the names. Similarly his reply to the argument that why women are half the witness, if they are equal to men, his argument is as follows:

The Qur’an itself does not say that women are half witness but only recommends that in financial transaction have two women and one man if two men are not available. This according to Mumtaz Ali is a privilege for women rather than any stigma as two women have been recommended because often women have certain problems like menstruation or pregnant and cannot go to the court to bear witness. Such privilege is not available to men. Thus according to Maulavi sahib, it is privilege, not stigma for women.

He also refutes the argument that Allah first created Adam and then Eve and hence Adam has superiority over Eve. Mumtaz Ali Khan also refutes this argument and says these are stories taken by commentators of Qur’an from Christian and Jewish sources and Qur’an itself does not say Adam was created first and then Eve for his comfort and company. From Qur’an one can not prove who was created first and who was created later.

Similarly the argument about permissibility of four marriages simultaneously is also effectively refuted as he says there is no clarity in the verse (4:3) whether it allows four wives simultaneously, or one after the other or divorcing one and marrying second and so on. According to him four wives simultaneously is not the intention of the Qur’an for which he gives elaborate arguments.

In any case it is most interesting book with alternate interpretations of Qur’anic verses as far as women’s rights are concerned. One can say it is first feminist interpretation of Qur’an in the Indian subcontinent as early as 19th century.

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