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Gender and sharafat: re-reading Nazir Ahmad

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  06 December 2007


This article considers two well-known texts that deal with questions of education and appropriate conduct for respectable Muslims in colonial India. The texts under scrutiny are Mirat al-Arus (The Bride's Mirror), and the Taubat-al-Nasuh (Repentance of Nasuh), completed in 1867–68 and 1873 respectively. The author was a Muslim publicist and a prolific writer who published numerous books in diverse genres. Nazir Ahmed (1830–1912) came from a family of distinguished maulavis and muftis of Bijnor (in the state of Uttar Pradesh) and Delhi. His father, a teacher in a small town near Bijnor, taught him Persian and Arabic. In 1846, Nazir Ahmad enrolled at the Delhi College and studied there till 1853. He began his career as a maulavi in Arabic, but soon (in 1856) became a deputy inspector of schools in the Department of Public Instruction. Later, after he had produced a superb translation of the Indian Penal Code in Urdu, he was nominated for the Revenue Service. He was posted as deputy collector in what was then called the North-West Provinces (i.e. modern U.P.), whence the name ‘Diptee (Deputy) Nazir Ahmad’ by which he is popularly known.

Research Article
Copyright © The Royal Asiatic Society 2008

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1 I am especially grateful to David Lelyveld, C. M. Naim, Gyan Pandey and Francis Robinson, for critical readings of several drafts of this article. Thanks also to several of my colleagues at Emory University, and to Gail Minault, Kamala Visweswaran, and Margrit Pernau, for their thought-provoking comments.

2 The information in the above two paragraphs is taken from C. M. Naim, ‘Prize-Winning Adab: a study of five Urdu books written in response to the Allahabad Government Gazette Notification,’ in Barbara D. Metcalf, Moral Conduct and Authority: The Place of Adab in South Asian Islam (Berkeley, 1984), pp. 292–293, 299–301. See also Frances Pritchett's afterword to Maulvi Nazir Ahmad, The Bride's Mirror, Mirat ul-'Arus: A Tale of Life in Delhi a hundred years ago, trans. G. E. Ward (New Delhi, 2001), hereafter The Bride's Mirror. I use the following Urdu edition of this text in this article: Nazir Ahmad, Kulliyat-e Diptee Nazir Ahmad (Lahore, 2004) (hereafter Mirat Urdu edn.). All translations are mine, unless otherwise stated. For an excellent study of the life and works of Nazir Ahmad, see Iftikhar Ahmad Siddiqi, Maulavi Nazir Ahmad Dihlavi: Ahval-o-Asar (Lahore, 1971). For a brief but cogent statement on Nazir Ahmad, see Mushirul Hasan, A Moral Reckoning: Muslim Intellectuals in Nineteenth-Century Delhi (New Delhi, 2005), pp. 132–184.

3 Francis Robinson, ‘The Memory of Power, Muslim ‘Political Importance and the Muslim League’, p. 9 (unpublished paper). For a more extended discussion of the changed nineteenth-century context, see Siddiqi, Maulavi Nazir Ahmad Dihlavi: Ahval-o-Asar, and the extensive writings of C. A. Bayly, Mushirul Hasan and Francis Robinson. I am grateful to Francis Robinson for letting me see an advance copy of the paper cited above, and to him and David Lelyveld for extended conversations on this point.

4 Faisal Devji's ‘Gender and the Politics of Space: The Movement for Women's Reform in Muslim India’, South Asia, 14, 1 (1992), pp. 141–154, is suggestive about the kinds of ideological changes in play in what he would argue was the creation of a new Indian middle class.

5 The phrase in quotation marks is from Naim, ‘Prize-Winning Adab’, p. 306.

6 Naim, ‘Prize-Winning Adab’, p. 304. Or consider David Lelyveld's crucial point about education: “the well-rehearsed early history of English-style education in northern India is interesting as a piece of British intellectual history, but is largely peripheral to a social and cultural analysis of the region in the period before 1857. Only in the latter part of the century did these debates become relevant from an indigenous point of view”, see David Lelyveld, Aligarh's First Generation: Muslim Solidarity in British India (Princeton, 1978), pp. 68–69. If Nazir Ahmad was writing ‘A tale of life in Delhi a hundred years ago’, as the subtitle to the translation has it, then the late-nineteenth century models of education and schooling that scholars invoke are rather anachronistic; centrally because these do not capture the ethos of ‘training and nurturing’ but point to a rather institutionalised sense of education.

7 Hasan, A Moral Reckoning, p. 157.

8 Gail Minault, Secluded Scholars: Women's Education and Muslim Social reform in Colonial India (Delhi, 1998), p. 11.

9 Ibid, p. 35.


10 See, notably, Tanika Sarkar, Hindu Wife, Hindu Nation: Community, Religion, and Cultural Nationalism (London, 2001); Lata Mani, Contentious Traditions: The Debate on Sati in Colonial India (Berkeley, 1998); Samita Sen, ‘Motherhood and mothercraft: Gender and Nationalism in Bengal’, Gender and History 5 (2) 1993, pp. 231–243. For the citation, see, Mani, Contentious Traditions, p. 79; Kamala Visweswaran, ‘“My Words Were Not Cared For”: Customary Law, Criminality and the ‘Woman Question’ in Late Colonial India‘, Unpublished Paper; Rajeswari Sunder Rajan, The Scandal of the State: Women, Law and Citizenship in India (Durham, London and New Delhi, 2003).

11 Hasan, A Moral Reckoning, p. 157.

12 Barbara Metcalf, ‘Islamic Reform and Islamic Women: Maulana Thanawi's Jewelry of Paradise’, in Metcalf, Moral Conduct and Authority, p. 195.

13 Hasan, A Moral Reckoning, p. 157, and passim.

14 Ahmad, Nazir, The Repentance of Nussooh (Taubat-al-Nasuh): the tale of a Muslim family a hundred years ago, trans. Kempson, M. (Delhi, 2004), pp. 911Google Scholar; I use the following Urdu edition: Nazir Ahmad, Kulliyat-e Diptee Nazir Ahmad (Lahore, 2004), pp. 36–37 (hereafter Taubat Urdu edn., translations mine), pp. 36–37.

15 Nazir Ahmad, Repentance, p. 11; Taubat Urdu edn pp. 36–37.

16 See David Lelyveld's piece on the word ashraf in the following website of keywords: For historically changing connotations of the term sharif, see Lelyveld, Aligarh's First Generation, especially pp. 27–30.

17 For a discussion of the ways in which sharafat is discussed in the Mirat and the Taubat, see, Margrit Pernau, Bürger mit Turban. Plurale Identitäten der Muslime in Delhi im 19. Jahrhundert (Göttingen, December 2007), chapters, IV.1.3, and IV.5.1. I am grateful to Professor Pernau for providing me copies and descriptions of this work.

18 Mirat Urdu edn., p. 65.

19 These are the adjectives with which Asghari is introduced in the Mirat, qualities with which she subsequently manages most affairs of her married life, as the author demonstrates; see Mirat Urdu edn., p. 98.

20 Ibid., p. 166.

21 Cited from C. M. Naim's ‘Afterword’ to the English translation of the Taubat, p. 133. Hereafter, Naim, Afterword.

22 Taubat Urdu edn., pp. 22–24.

23 Ibid., pp. 36–37.

24 This may again be seen as a slightly radical move in the text, in that a partnership is urged between the man and the woman. In the preface to the Mirat, Nazir Ahmad invokes the analogy of a cart being drawn by a husband and a wife to provide the balance: suggesting that the world is like a cart which cannot move without two wheels – man on one side, and woman on the other. Likewise in a letter that is discussed later in this article, Durandesh Khan invokes a similar metaphor for Asghari: that of a cart of the world (duniya ki gaadi) being drawn by a husband and a wife.

25 Taubat Urdu edn., pp. 115–116.

26 Naim points very clearly to the extraordinariness of Kalim's character in his critical commentary on the Taubat; see Naim, Afterword, pp. 138–139. I shall return to this point at the end of this article.

27 Taubat Urdu edn., pp. 8–9.

28 Mirat Urdu edn., p. 163. Husnara is shown to be a rude and ill-tempered young woman. Everyone complained about her. It was Husnara's aunt, Shah Zamani, who suggests to her sister (mother of Husnara), Sultani Begum, to secure Asghari as an ustaani for Husnara. Shah Zamani and Asghari lived in the same muhalla.

29 Ibid., p. 164.

30 Ibid.., p. 165.

31 Ibid., p. 167.

32 Ibid., p. 175.

33 Ibid., p. 177.

34 Ibid., pp. 35–36.

35 Ibid., p. 37.

36 Ibid., p. 39.

37 Ibid.

38 Ibid., p. 34.

39 Ibid., p. 51.

40 Ibid., pp. 51–52. The second word, dil-sozi, literally means ‘burning of one's heart’, i.e. for someone's benefit or betterment, implying deep devotion or sacrifice.

41 Ibid., pp. 66–67.

42 Taubat Urdu edn., p. 86.

43 Ibid., p. 88.

44 Ibid., pp. 90–92.

45 Ibid., pp. 8–9.

46 Ibid., p. 76.

47 Ibid., p. 52.

48 Mirat Urdu edn., pp. 51–52.

49 Ibid., pp. 103, 104, 105, 107, 108.

50 Asghari writes a letter to her brother Khairandesh Khan, requesting him to go to Lahore and ask her father-in-law to come home for a fortnight to deal with Mama ‘Azmat's affairs, the caretaker who was misusing the finances and getting the family in debt. Asghari adds that if the men were present, the whole of this business would be settled admirably.

51 Of course, this is a tendency that is to be noted in the writings of many other reformers contemporaneous with Nazir Ahmad. Notable, for example, are the extensive writings of Raja Shiv Prasad that I am analysing for my book in progress.

52 Naim, Afterword, p. 135.

53 Mirat Urdu edn., p. 35.

54 Ibid, p. 39.


55 Coetzee, J. M., The Slow Man (London, 2005), p. 31Google Scholar.

56 Taubat Urdu edn., pp. 163–163.

57 Divan-i Sharar, probably of Mirza Ibrahim Beg, a Lucknow poet of the early nineteenth century. It cannot have been Abdul Halim Sharar who was born in 1860 and has been called “the pioneer of the historical romance in Urdu”, see Ralph Russell, The Pursuit of Urdu Literature: A Select History (London and New Jersey, 1992), p. 99. Khwaja Haidar ‘Ali Atish wrote Urdu poetry in the first quarter of the nineteenth century. For details of his poetry, see, Muhammad Sadiq, A History of Urdu Literature (Delhi, 1984), pp. 187–193.

58 Naim, Afterword, p.140; and e-mail communication from the author.

59 Mirat Urdu edn., pp. 180, 181, 183.

60 Ibid., p. 105.

61 Naim, Afterword, pp. 138–139 (translation by Naim).

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