Deputy Maulvi Nazir Ahmad died in 1912, and with him, the controversy surrounding his book Ummahat ul Ummah [Mothers of the Believers] — that had drawn in Habib Sherwani, Hakeem Ajmal Khan and others — also ended. Or so some people thought. After some time, Maulana Rashidul Khairi serialised the book in his women’s magazine Tamaddun and nobody protested against it.

In his essay on Azeem Baig Chughtai, which was also published in the 1983 book Chand Adabi Shakshiyat [Some Literary Personalities], Maulvi Nazir’s grandson, Shahid Ahmed Dehlavi, writes: “I somehow got hold of one remaining copy of the book and wondered why this good book should not be available to Muslims, so I republished it as it was. As soon as it got out of the press, a campaign started once again and the government was asked to confiscate all copies. The British government didn’t bother, but then my elders were forced to ask me to withdraw the book, which I didn’t. Then murder threats were hurled at me and in many cities, including Delhi, there were processions and rallies against the book.”

According to Dehlavi, Chughtai wrote to him from Jodhpur to send all copies of the book to him and announce that the books were now with Chughtai, and anyone who had the courage could go and collect from him. Dehlavi sent 200 books and announced that further publication had been stopped. But Chughtai had an adamant nature, so he went a step further by announcing in the newspaper Inquilaab that the book was with him and anyone could dare challenge him for that. This sparked the fire again. Within two weeks, his house was surrounded and all copies of the book were taken away by force. He was also attacked and sustained injuries.

Ultimately, Chughtai was forced to repent. Though he kept saying that he did not write the book, that Deputy Maulvi Nazir Ahmad had written it, nobody listened to him, and the protesters carried Chughtai to a large gathering where he had to apologise and beg for mercy for his sins. The mob burned all the books, just as an earlier mob had done when Maulvi Nazir was alive, around 25 years before. The incident of burning Maulvi Nazir’s book thus happened twice, first in 1910 and next in 1935. Chughtai wrote that he felt sorry for a nation that had learned nothing in a quarter of a century.

Dehlavi wrote about the two book burnings in the January 1955 issue of the reputed literary journal Naqoosh. Thirteen years later, Begum Taj Farrukhi presented her research in the 1968 annual issue of the literary magazine Al Shuja, published from Karachi. Titled ‘Maulvi Nazir Ahmad Ki Aakhri Tasneef: Ummahat ul Ummah’ [The Last Book of Maulvi Nazir Ahmad: Mothers of the Believers], Begum Farrukhi quotes from Maulvi Abdul Haq: “Famous and prominent people often face coercion and injustice at the hands of their contemporaries. Maulvi Nazir was also persecuted in his old age. As soon as he published Ummahat ul Ummah, trouble erupted in Delhi ... edicts were issued against him and he was subjected to unspeakable insults and ignominy. Scholars of the Nadvatul Ulema gathered in Delhi, collected all the books by force and torched them. The flames brightened the faces of the arsonists who derived that certain pleasure a predator displays after making a kill. They were scared of the British government, otherwise they would have thrown Maulvi Nazir Ahmad into the inferno.”

This is the concluding part of an essay on censorship; the first part was carried on August 9

Begum Farrukhi writes that even those who had not read the book were convinced that it was condemnable and deserved to be burned. She also quotes Maulana Shibli Nomani as saying, “After the publication of Ummahat ul Ummah, when the Nadva gathering was to be held in Delhi, I advertised it by printing the list of prominent scholars — including Maulvi Nazir Ahmad — announcing their participation in the rally. Somebody declared me an infidel for calling Nazir a maulvi.”

Begum Farrukhi reminds us that Maulana Rashidul Khairi had serialised Ummahat ul Ummah in his magazine after the initial controversy had ended without any protests. What could be the reason for this?

In fact, Maulvi Nazir’s son and Dehlavi’s father, Maulvi Bashiruddin Ahmed, had asked one of the campaign leaders why, in his father’s old age, was so much fuss being created. The leader had responded by saying that they were actually confronting Maulvi Nazir. Begum Farrukhi claims it was not the book per se, but Maulvi Nazir’s personality that his opponents hated. She quotes Khwaja Hasan Nizami as saying. “The ulema of Delhi did not issue any edict against Maulvi Nazir. Some selfish and greedy elements created trouble, but most knowledgeable people kept aloof from this controversy.”

Begum Farrukhi also quotes Dehlavi from his 1962 book Ganjinae Gohar [A Treasure of Pearls] regarding the episode with Chughtai, mentioned above from Naqoosh. In his well researched book, Mirza Azeem Baig Chughtai: Shakhsiyat Aur Fun [Mirza Azeem Baig Chughtai: Personality and Art] published in 2003, Javed Akhtar Bhatti gives incredible details about how Maulana Abdul Majid Daryabadi launched a campaign against Chughtai nearly 25 years after Maulvi Nazir’s death. Daryabadi launched his newspaper Sach in Lucknow in 1925, and then another newspaper, Sidq, in 1935. Chughtai was a free thinker and bold writer who became a target of Daryabadi’s vitriol through his newspaper.

Essentially, Chughtai was a writer of humour, but he also dabbled in religious and social topics. In the 1930s, when he wrote about dance and the veil, he had to face stiff resistance from those who considered it their moral responsibility to defend traditions against the ‘bad influence’ of English education and enlightenment. Chughtai wrote three Urdu pamphlets: Quran Aur Purdah [Quran and the Veil], Hadees Aur Purdah [Tradition and the Veil], and Raqs-o-Surood [Dance and Music] — although surood can mean both music and song. His observations were not acceptable to the religious circles of the time.

Bhatti painstakingly compiled some of the argumentative correspondence that appeared in the pages of Daryabadi’s newspapers Sach and Sidq. For example, in November 1932, somebody from Allahabad wrote a letter to the editor of Sach, condemning Chughtai’s pamphlets and calling for urgent action; otherwise “our women will emulate cheap English women and come out on the streets.” The letter writer suggested that to curb this propagation of new ideas, Daryabadi and Sulaiman Nadvi were the best persons to lead a campaign. Then, in 1933, there was a flurry of write-ups by Daryabadi, Sulaiman Nadvi, Shah Moinuddin Nadvi and Mohammad Ali Mekash against Chughtai.

There were also letters to the editor from some ‘concerned’ Muslims from all over India, who expressed their rage by declaring Chughtai an anti-religion heretic and demanded stern action against him. Daryabadi himself was an interesting personality who, in his own words, at the age of 20 had turned to English education, enlightenment, liberalism and other modern ideas of that time. But at 30 years of age, he had become a born-again Muslim with orthodox ideas and a staunch inclination to curb any dissenting voices within Muslims who could challenge the orthodoxy and present diversity of opinion.

Chughtai was a sceptic of traditions and doubted their authenticity. He was especially opposed to underage marriages and advocated a girl’s right to marry of her own volition. In his writings, he lamented illiteracy among Muslim women who, in his opinion, had a right to divorce, education and employment — just as Muslim men had. Chughtai was opposed to treating women as chattel, and particularly objected to the practice of keeping concubines. Though he quoted from well-respected books in Islamic history — just as Maulvi Nazir had done earlier — his protestations were unwelcome and generated adversity.

Chughtai also tried to prove that music was allowed in Islam and there was no need to frown upon it. He even suggested that an education in music made for a better human being. He opposed the practice of Muslims divorcing their wives on mere whim and advocated for women’s rights so that they could protect themselves against arbitrary divorce. But the adversity was great and his own writings, coupled with his insistence to defend Maulvi Nazir’s book, all resulted in his utter humiliation. After he was forced to repent, he died in 1941 at the age of just 46 years.

The writer is a columnist and educationist with a PhD from the University of Birmingham, UK. He can be contacted at

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, October 18th, 2020