By Tahir Kamran
July 1, 2018
Imran Khan’s statement about feminism served as a prompt reminder to evaluate the social structures prevalent in Muslim North India in the early decades of the 20th century. Was the issue of women’s empowerment essentially a Western one, or did Muslim India also had its moments whereby women asserted for equal rights vis a vis men?
This is a very significant question. Sifting through the annals of history, one may also ask: how was the role of women re-assessed during the era of reform against the backdrop of Sir Syed Ahmad Khan and his contemporaries’ bid to make social adjustment in the newly emergent dispensation? The discourse of political decline extended to the social realm. The family as a primary social unit was reconfigured during this period. Deputy Nazir Ahmed, Ashraf Ali Thanwi and even Abul Kalam Azad had a few prescriptions to offer, mostly lamenting the declining scale of morality among women. Taubatul Nasuh, Mira’atul Aroos (Urdu novels by Deputy Nazir Ahmed), Baheshti Zewar (by Ashraf Ali Thanawi) and Mussalman Aurat (by Abul Kalam Azad) represented a trend which had considerable social permeation among the Muslim middle class.
The most remarkable of these writers, however, was Maulvi Mumtaz Ali, who championed the cause of women’s rights. This sets him apart from his other peers and contemporaries. The point that needs to be borne in mind is the social exigencies of the time and not the content of his reformatory message, which incurred the wrath of the moral vigilantes of the time. His book Huqooq-e-Niswan was not approved even by such an enlightened figure as Sir Syed Ahmad Khan. When Mumtaz Ali went all the way to Aligarh and showed him the manuscript, Sir Syed became so indignant that he tore it up and threw it in the dustbin. Sir Syed ranted, addressing Mumtaz Ali and telling him that the Muslims’ political power had been lost, their culture and social norms made irrelevant, and accused Mumtaz Ali of wanting Muslim women to part ways from Muslim society.
After saying all this, Sir Syed is said to have left the room and Mumtaz Ali retrieved the manuscript from the dustbin and came back to Lahore. Out of the respect and deference that he had for Sir Syed, Mumtaz Ali decided to publish it only after Sir Syed’s death in 1898.
To put the reformatory endeavours of Mumtaz Ali in a proper perspective, some light needs to be shed on the formative years of his life and the contribution of his wife in particular.
Syed Mumtaz Ali was born on September 27, 1860 in Rawalpindi, where his father was posted at that time. According to some sources, he was born in Deoband. His family genealogy links him with Imam Raza. His forbears came to India during Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb Alamgir’s reign and settled in Ambala but later shifted to Deoband. He came from a family that prided itself in its scholarship. Mumtaz Ali’s grandfather, Mir Sattar Ali, was a court scholar in the princely state of Bahadurgarh. His father, Syed Zulfiqar Ali, was educated at Saint Stephens Delhi where he read Arabic. Zulfiqar Ali got instruction in Persian literature from Imam Bakhsh Sehbai. He sought government employment and spent much of his career serving in various districts of the Punjab as Extra Assistant Commissioner.
Mumtaz Ali received his early education in Urdu and Arabic at home in Deoband. He received instruction in Quranic studies, Hadith and Fiqh from Maulvi Qasim Naunutvi and Maulvi Muhammad Yaqoob. Maulana Mahmud ul Hassan was one of his peers. Subsequently, he got Western education from private tutors as well as from schools in Rawalpindi, Ferozepur, Sirsa and Lahore. After completing his education, he was employed at Punjab Chief Court as a translator in 1883. He carried on in that position until 1891.He quit that position due to ill health.
In literature, he considered Muhammad Hussain Azad as his role model. Among his friends, Altaf Hussain Hali, Maulvi Zaka Ullah, Deputy Nazir Ahmad and Shibli Naumani were the most prominent. A significant aspect of Mumtaz Ali’s personality was the convergence of both religious and modern traditions that made him a unique figure. It was this which prepared him to undertake the hitherto unaddressed task of women’s social elevation. Now we will turn to his personal life because it had substantial bearing on his life as a reformer.
Mumtaz Ali contracted his first marriage in 1888 with Hamida Begum. Out of that marriage, a daughter and a son Syed Hamid Ali were born. Hamida Begum passed away in 1895 and he married again, with Muhammadi Begum in 1898.This second marriage had a substantial bearing on Mumtaz Ali’s life as a reformer for the cause of Muslim women. Hence a brief autobiographical account of Muhammadi Begum should be of interest to the readers.
She hailed from a family of Delhi Ashraf (nobles). Born to Syed Ahmed Shafi, Extra Assistant Commissioner in 1879, Muhammadi Begum was very well-versed in Urdu, Persian and religious studies. She was also very adept in household affairs. She was married to Mumtaz Ali in 1898 when she was 19 years old. The same year, Mumtaz Ali launched a magazine Tahzib-i-Niswan, and Muhammadi Begum was its first editor. It is noteworthy that before Tahzib-i-Niswan, two magazines for women had already been launched, namely Akhbar-un- Nisa whose editor was Maulvi Syed Ahmad, and Sharif Bibian, which was founded and edited by Munshi Mahboob Alam. Thus Tahzib-i-Niswan was the third but the most influential magazine devoted to the issues and affairs of women.
Muhammadi Begum did not confine herself to Tahzib-i-Niswan only. She started a monthly magazine for mothers by the name of Mushir-i-Madar in 1903. In 1907 she set up an association by the name of ‘Anjuman-i-Khatunan-i-Hamdrad’ and also established ‘Dar-ul-Niswan’ where poor and deprived women were housed and taught skilled work like embroidery so that they could earn their livelihood.
Similarly, she set up another association, ‘Majlis-Tahzib-i-Niswan ‘and under its auspices, a women’s conference was held, which was the first event of its kind. Unfortunately, Muhammadi Begum did not live beyond 1908 and died in Simla in the prime of youth. She was buried in Mominpura graveyard in Lahore. Mumtaz Ali started a magazine for children by the name of Phool in 1908 in the memory of his beloved wife. Muhammadi Begum was a prolific writer who authored 25 books, all of which dealt with the issues of women.
To be continued
Tahir Kamran is a historian and teacher based in Lahore.