Salaams, Maulvi Saheb

Courtesy: Danish Anwer

A hundred and ten years after his death, Sir Syed Ahmed Khan, the man who was constantly reviled by the ulema of his time, is remembered…

A hundred and ten years after his death, Sir Syed Ahmed Khan, the man who was constantly reviled by the ulema of his time, is remembered almost with reverence by Indian Muslims. He is all over the Urdu media currently marking the 192nd anniversary of his birth. An email circulating among the alumni of Aligarh Muslim University the institution whose foundation was laid by Sir Syed in 1875 privileges his name with a prefix Rahmatullah Alaihe (May Allah Shower his Blessings on him), an honour reserved for holy saints.

In the aftermath of the failed rebellion of 1857, Sir Syed was the first to proclaim that in modern education alone lay salvation for Muslims who had sunk to the depths of ignorance, degradation and despair. To most ulema of his day, however, this was the surest road to hell. So they opposed him in every which way they could. One of them, Maulvi Ali Bakhsh, even got a fatwa from Mecca and Medina pronouncing death to the man unless he repented and recanted. Sir Syed was not to be deterred.

If the overwhelming majority of the ulema were his fiercest opponents, a few were among his staunchest supporters. Maulana Altaf Hussain Hali, whose Hayat-e-Javed is considered to be the most authentic biography of Sir Syed, was one of them. Maulana Hali is best remembered for his Musaddas, a poets cry from the heart exhorting his dead Quom (nation) to awaken from slumber, do a reality check. (Sir Syed often said that if Allah asks him to name only one virtuous deed in his life, he would claim credit for getting the maulana to pen his Mussadas).

During my visit to the Aligarh Muslim University last year, a Muslim businessman presented to me a copy of Hayat-e-Javed with the words: Please read it and see how even today Indian Muslims stand more or less where they did when the book was written well over a century ago. Having read the book I am inclined to agree. If truth be told, odd as it might sound, it was the demolition of the Babri Masjid in 1992 that awakened north Indias Muslims to a century-old message.

If its a pity Indian Muslims took so long to acknowledge the debt they owe to Sir Syed, far greater the pity that even today they are blissfully ignorant of the existence of another man in robes who not only supported Sir Syed but who with his own reform mission was arguably a hundred years ahead of the modernist. Not surprisingly, even Sir Syed, who was not to be cowed down by the entire tribe of obscurantist ulema, balked at the sheer audacity of a solitary maulvis agenda.  Syed Mumtaz Ali Khan was the name of the man who was 43 years junior to Sir Syed. For now, lets call them Sir Syed and Maulvi Syed. When he heard of Maulvi Syeds plan to publish a book on the rights of women, well aware of where the maulvi was coming from, Sir Syed did all he could to dissuade him from such a hazardous enterprise. Above all, he feared that the storm that the maulvis book was certain to raise within the community would further fan the flames that were already threatening to engulf his own education project. But the maulvi was not to be deterred.

If modern education of men from elite Muslim families topped Sir Syeds agenda, uppermost in Maulvi Syeds mind and closest to his heart was the question of womens emancipation. For Sir Syed, the time was not yet ripe to talk of the education of Muslim girls or women. For Maulvi Syed it was already far too late! Because he genuinely believed that men and women were equal before Allah, for him the ulema- endorsed subjugation and oppression of women was the ultimate heresy, a sinful subversion of Divine Intent. It is this deeply held belief that infused the good maulvis agenda with extraordinary courage and the passion of a missionary.

In the aftermath of the failed rebellion of 1857,Sir Syed was the first to proclaim that in modern education alone lay salvation for Muslims who had sunk to the depths of ignorance,degradation and despair

In 1898, the year in which Sir Syed passed away, Maulvi Syed published his bold book, Huququn Niswan (Rights of Women), in Urdu. The very first chapter titled Male supremacy myth said it all. Listing out the three logical and five theological arguments trotted by the ulema (they still do) in support of gender hierarchy, he proceeded to demonstrate the fallacy of their logic and their self-serving interpretation of holy text with precision and passion.

Huququn Niswan was published at a time when Muslim women were not supposed to be seen outside the four walls of their homes; inside their homes, they were meant to remain within the confines of the zanankhana (womens quarter). Undaunted by his milieu, for this maulvi with a mission, it was not enough to establish logically and theologically that women are in no way inferior to men. Citing the Quran and the Hadith, he proceeded to argue that the female sex is, in fact, the better half of the finest of Allahs creation: human beings.

Dont know enough but one can well imagine Maulvi Syeds book setting many a mullahs beard on fire. Even today, Huququn Niswan will among other things be a big downer for Muslim men because it punctures male fantasy about the gorgeous-as-gorgeous-can-be houris awaiting pious men in paradise! No such luck, argues the maulvi! All that Islam promises is a reunion of God-fearing husbands and wives! On the Day of Judgment all men and women will be resurrected, looking great and in the prime of youth. And those who make it to heaven will forever be young.

In his brief preface to Huququn Niswan, Maulvi Syed wrote he was well aware of the uproar his book would cause. But he couldnt care less, he said, concluding with the words: “If this humble effort of mine results in the protection of the rights of even a single old woman in the entire country I would consider my effort to have been worthwhile.  Ah, Shahbano!

Huququn Niswan has very recently been resurrected. English translations of a few chapters of the book are now in circulation in India and in Pakistan while the bold Urdu daily, Sahafat, Mumbai, is serialising the book. Also in the pipeline are reprints of Huququn Niswan in Urdu, translation and publication in other Indian languages.

What will it take, how much longer, before this outstanding holy man is reclaimed by Muslim women and men as their own? That is difficult to tell, but to you Maulvi Saheb, my humble salaams.

(This article was also published in The Indian Express on October 28, 2009)





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