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Reviewed by Muhammad Ali Siddiqi

THERE is one obvious reason why we get to read so little about the Ali brothers — Jinnah overshadowed them, which is a pity because their contribution to the Aligarh spirit, which led to the Muslim awakening and to the creation of Pakistan, is enormous, and in some respects, crucial. They spearheaded two mass movements that shook the Raj and, with Gandhi sometimes on their side, they were not only Muslim leaders, they were also in the top echelon of the joint Hindu-Muslim leadership.

Ali Brothers: The Life and Times of Maulana Mohamed Ali and Shaukat Ali serves to fill gaps in our knowledge of the era. The book is a triptych: one panel concerns family history and looks at the Indian Muslims’ psyche under ‘infidel’ rule following the failed ‘mutiny’; the second is the first-ever comprehensive biography of the two brothers — the “Siamese twins”, as Gandhi called them; and the third is a chronicle of the freedom movement from the beginning of the 20th century to Shaukat Ali’s death in 1938.

The word Pakistan had, no doubt, been coined by Chaudhri Rahmat Ali, but Jinnah had not yet adopted it as Muslim League’s goal. Nevertheless, the cataclysmic post-WWI developments, in which the Ali brothers played a leading role, coupled with communal bickering, served to crystallise Muslim thinking and led to Pakistan.

The 1,000-page tome is the result of painstaking research by Khalid Ali, a scion of the Ali family and the product of AligarhUniversity. It sheds new light on the brothers’ crusading lives and some hitherto unknown aspects of Mohamed Ali’s diplomatic activity, like his talks with Lloyd George, French MPs, the Italian prime minister and the Pope on the fate of the Ottoman Empire. Of the two brothers, there is no doubt Mohamed Ali stood head and shoulders above Shaukat. Educated at Oxford, he combined a British education with Islamic studies and Urdu and Persian literatures to become a superb speaker and develop a powerful pen as seen in the newspapers he launched — Comrade in English and Hamdard in Urdu. The papers’ closure and his arrest didn’t deter him.

When asked by a British politician, “what can you threaten us with?”, Mohamed Ali replied: “It is true we cannot threaten you with powerful engines of war. But we can threaten you and do threaten you with the might of truth. And with a weapon that no shield can resist, with an unconquerable will not to yield to injustice; with the will, in the last resort, to die true to our faith. We do not threaten to kill you, but we do threaten you with our unyielding determination to die kings of our conscience and masters of our soul.”

Shaukat was, of course, eclipsed by Mohamed Ali, but the older brother’s place in history should not be underestimated. As Gandhi wrote in a letter, Shaukat was “one of the most sincere men I have met in my life. He is generous, frank, brave and gentle. He believes in the mission and himself”. His was a many-faceted personality: his efforts to convert Aligarh college into a university; his trial, arrest and conviction; his visit to the Middle East, including Palestine; the 49 lectures he delivered in the US to introduce Indian and Muslim points of view to Americans; the companion he was to Mohamed Ali in prison where he read Iqbal to rouse him; his excellent relationship with Congress leaders in spite of political differences; his life without a wife for 18 years, when he chose to remarry at age 60; his acceptance of  Jinnah as his leader, even though he himself was regarded “a political field marshal”: these are glimpses which only research across the three continents could provide.

Ali Brothers also reveals little known facts about Bi Amman, their mother, whose image, unfortunately, is one of an old, conservative woman who made public appearances in a burqa. This image tends to distort her role, first as a young widow with vision and inexhaustible energy and, second, as a tireless political activist. She became a widow at 26 but showed extraordinary courage and foresight in raising her children and providing them a western education at a time when everything British was taboo.

Bi Amman managed to send Shaukat to an English school but when she asked her late husband’s brother, who was managing their financial affairs, for money to send Mohamed Ali as well, he replied, “one infidel is enough”. Yet, Bi Amman managed to send to an English school and later to Oxford the boy who would one day occupy centre stage in the two mass movements that rocked India in the post-WWI days.

British theosophist Annie Besant called her “lion-hearted” and said she “quailed before no danger”. Burqa didn’t prevent Bi Amman from undertaking political activity and with that famous ditty “Jaan baita Khilafat pay daydo”, she became a household name in India. Like her sons, she was peripatetic and helped raise funds for Turkey, actively supported Besant’s Home Rule and once presided over the All India Ladies’ Conference organised by Congress. Defying a fatwa, which said what she was doing was haram, she undertook strenuous journeys, addressed public meetings and pleaded for Hindu-Muslim unity. Above all, she was a source of inspiration and strength to her redoubtable sons.

The book is a font of material for research scholars. One wishes it had a chronology and the publishers had paid more attention to editing. The absence of quotes sometimes confuses the reader and most shockingly, pages 109 to 112 and 114 to 117 are blank while the index doesn’t have an entry on Mohamed Ali.

The reviewer is a Dawn staffer

Ali Brothers: The Life and Times of Maulana Mohamed Ali and Shaukat Ali


By Khalid Ali

Royal Book Company

ISBN 978-969-407-395-8

920pp. Rs2,500