Syeda Muhammadi Begum
Do you recognize this person of historic significance?
Probably, ‘yes’, if you have interest in Urdu literature.
Probably, ‘no’, if your main source of information is internet. Because this great lady had not, so far, been introduced to the internet. I find it surprising.
SyedaMuhammadi begum was the first women in the Indian sub-continent to be the editor of a weekly magazine,‘Tehzib e Nisvan’. This magazine was dedicated to inform and educate women of India, particularly the Muslim women in India.Muhammadi Begum was also the first woman to extensively write for children.’ The readership of ‘Tehzib e Nisvan’, and of her writings for children,was wide and spread throughout Indian public and overseas settlers.
‘Tehzib e Nisvan’ introduced many women writers who made their names in due course.
Syeda Muhammadi Begum holds a unique position in the history of the Indian sub-continent as the pioneer of women development. She devoted,almost, every minute of her life todevelop awareness in the women and children of India. She worked tirelessly, round the clock, and finally was physically consumed by her passion. She died at the young age of 30 years.
Syeda Muhammadi Begum was the first leader of a movement for the development, emancipation and education of women in the sub-continent. She supported her husband writings on the “ Haqooq e Nisvaan”.
Syeda Muhammadi Begum responded to a significant socio-political situation. It was the later part of the 19th Century when British had finally won and formally taken over the rule of India from Moguls in 1857. Muslims were no more rulers. The language of the elite,Persian, was no more the official language. The communities, particularly the Hindus, were keen to share power with British and the Muslims were likely to be left behind. A challenge existed to culture as well as the economy and influence in society. Muslim families had to do a great deal of re-thinking to hold a position respectability. The challenge was felt by some very distinguished persons in Delhi like Hakim Ajmal and NawabFaizahmed Khan. They continued to support the traditional arts, literature, and music. Their DiwaanKhanas were centers of culture and provided continuity of the tradition. Muslims needed to be educated in contemporary subjects and learn the ins and outs of the new social make up also. They could compete only with the power of knowledge. Sir Syed Ahmed Khan and his associates stressed the need of giving modern education to Muslim men. To enable Muslim youth to get government positions and be in places of authority. Aligarh University was established for this purpose. The women were not seen as part of the Muslim mainstream. Distinguished men like Hakim Ajmal Khan and NawabFaiz Ahmed Khan fully supported Sir Syed.
But it was important that Muslim women be also educated; made aware of the contemporary world around and be ready to interact with the women of the ruling class and raise literate families.. Muslim women were to be prepared by necessary grooming and knowledge to prove an equal. This necessity was realized acutely by Shamsul Ulema Syed Mumtaz Ali who wrote about the rights of women. He believed in emancipation of women and although his role model, Sir Syed Ahmed Khan, differed and warned Mumtaz Ali against such an effort, Syed Mumtaz Ali did not change his mind. Ultimately Sir Syed Ahmed Khan gave his blessings reluctantly. So Mumtaz Ali founded the “ DarulIshaat Punjab” and set up his press and decided to start publications in Urdu language for women of the subcontinent. He was alone at that time. His first wife had died. He needed a dedicated companion. Syed Mumtaz Ali moved in a socially distinguished circle. His father Syed Zulfiqar Ali was an Asst. Commissioner He was part of the protagonist Muslim elite of India who were making efforts to rehabilitate the Muslim communities and included men like Syed Ahmed Shafi, NawabFaiz Ahmed Khan. Hakim Muhammad Ajmal Khan and others. Syed Zulfiqar Ali and Syed Ahmed Shafi had moved to Punjab in pursuit of the Government Service. Mumtaz Ali ,convinced of the need of women emancipation, married Syed Ahmed Shafi’s young daughter ,Syeda Muhammadi Begum. Syed Ahmed Shafi was a scholar himself and an Asst. Commissioner in Punjab and Kohat. He was author of several books and known for his command of English language. His younger daughter Muhammadi Begum was an exceptionally bright girl and her father was so impressed that he called her to be his Secretary. Syed Mumtaz Ali could not have found a better companion.
Syeda Mohammad Begum was the younger daughter of Syed Ahmed Shafi,Muhammadi begum’s mother was MsZebunNisa. Muhammadi begum was born on 22nd May1878 at Shahpur, a suburb of Delhi. She was the fourth of the five children of her parents.
Her elder sister Ahmadi Begum wrote the biography of her illustrious younger sister after the demise of Muhammadi begum, in 1908. The biography written in hand, and not published before, is with me. It was found in a manuscript form in a personal collection saved by ShamsulUlama Syed Mumtaz Ali and given to his, and Muhammadi begum’s only son,Syed Imtiaz Ali Taj.
The collection passed on to Syed Imtiaz Ali Taj is, hereinafter, referred to as ‘Taj Archives’.
Muhammadi begum was married to Syed Mumtaz Ali, ShamsulUlama, at the age of 19years, on 30th November 1897 after the demise of his first wife .Syed Mumtaz Ali was 37 years of age at that time. He was the founder owner of famous publishing house ‘DarulIshaat’ Punjab, Lahore.
As a child Muhammadi Begum was exceptional. She was a voracious reader, organizer and even a cricketer and horse rider! Syeda Muhammadi Begum was the favorite child of her father who paid a lot of attention on her education as well as overall social development. Impressed by her enthusiasm, talent, energy and passion to educate, Syed Mumtaz Ali immediately engaged some top scholars, to teach her English language, general knowledge, religion and publishing techniques. He could see a companion in his struggle for emancipation of women. He had written and published “ Haqooq e Nisvan” as a charter of rights for women in1898. Now he was getting ready to reach Muslim households on a regular basis.
Within about 4 months of the marriage, the magazine ‘Tehzib e Nisvan’ was launched on July 1, 1898.Muhammadi Begum was appointed the Editor. This magazine continued for about 50 years and made history. It provided the much needed opportunity to the women in India to learn and be aware of the world issues and to express themselves. Popularly known as “Tehzib”, it contained guiding articles on all domestic issues like relationships, social service, cooking, aesthetics, children education, good family conduct, literature, and world politics. The awareness provided to women of India, particularly in the Muslim households, brought revolutionary awakening and development of talent. Shamsul Ulema Syed Mumtaz Ali was referred as “Sir Syed for women,”. Indeed while Syed Mumtaz Ali was the mentor and guiding spirit, the capable field commander and leader was young Muhammadi Begum.
Syed Ahmed Shafi had 5 siblings from his first wife MsZebunNisa: These were Rafi, Sami, Ahmadi Begum,Mohammad Begum,and Habib, in the same order. After the demise of MsZebunNisa, Syed Ahmed Shafi married Ms Bi Jan in the family circle and had two sonsAzizulShafi and MahbubulShafi.
Muhammadi begum, after her marriage, gave birth to only one child :Syed Imtiaz Ali born in year 1900.
I spent considerable time with Syed Imtiaz Ali Taj Sahib from 1957 after my MA from Government College Lahore. He was a very kind and learned man. He was Mohammad Begum’s only son and had been the centre of all her love and caring. He was most distinguished and the world knows about him as a dramatist, researcher, publisher and film maker, particularly as the author of famous drama “ Anarkali” and his life work on the Urdu Drama contained in 17 volumes. At his house I had several opportunities of meeting with Syed AzizulShafi Sahib, Muhammadi begum’s younger brother. Mr. AzizulShafi lived in Delhi at Nawab House, ChattaMangloo, Delhi. It is almost adjacent to Jamia Masjid. After my marriage with Yasmin, Taj Sahib’s daughter, we visited Syed Aziz Shafi in Delhi. He visited us in Rawalpindi shortly before his demise. Mr. Aziz Shafi was born in Rawalpindi.
During her life time, Mohammad Begumworked tirelessly, day and night’ at the cost of her health. She wrote, published, attended social gatherings, she was secretary to the League and motivated other ladies to contribute. She was consumed by her passion and hard work at a young age of 30 years. But by that time she had played the pioneering role for the women of the Indian subcontinent and generated a movement. Her work routines and social and family commitments can be judged from the extract of Dr Muhammad Salim Malik’s research included in this book.
She struck great reverence for Syeda Ashrafi Begum, a phenomenal educationist. Syeda Ashrafi Begum( popularly called Bibi Ashraf) became a role model for her. Muhammadi begum even expressed the desire to be buried close to Ashrafi Begum.She also wrote the biography of Ashrafi Begum. This biography provides an amazing insight into the society of mid- nineteenth century India and the extreme restrictions on women. So much so that learning to read and write was strictly forbidden and conversation in Urdu was looked down. Ashrafi Begum stealthily learnt to write by hiding the kitchen coal anda stick from the broom and making ‘ink’ in the night in her bed roam. Ashrafi Begum rose to be a distinguished educationist and spent her life in improving Victoria Girls School in Lahore. Shams Ulama Syed Mumtaz Ali respected the wish of Mohammad Begum and buried her close to Ashrafi Begum in Momin Pura graveyard on McLeod Road Lahore.Syeda Muhammadi begum’s tomb stone was written by Syed Mumtaz Ali Sahib in Persian language as Persian was the language of the educated elite in those times.
Syed Imtiaz Ali was affectionately called ‘Taj’ by his mother and later it became part of his name. Syed Imtiaz Ali Taj Sahib shot to world fame at the age of 22 when he wrote the play ‘Anarkali’. He continued the publication of Tehzib and Phool and other works for a long time and continued an illustrious career. He was awarded “Pride of Performance” and “Sitarae Imtiaz”. He was married to Hijab Ismail the famous novelist and short story writer. Hijab Imtiaz Ali is also famous for being the first licensed Muslim womenpilot in British Empire. Hijab hailed from Hyder Abad Deccan and was daughter of Syed Mohammad Ismail, a senior officer in the administration of the Nawabof Hyderabad Deccan. Syed Imtiaz Ali Taj Sahib and Mohtarima Hijab Imtiaz Ali are both buried next to Muhammadi begumSahiba, and I wrote their tomb stones in Urdu.The ‘ Shajra e Nasab’ of Syed Imtiaz Ali Taj Sahib is also engraved in the tombstone.
In the line of descendants of Muhammadi Begum/Syed Imtiaz Ali Taj and Hijab Imtiaz Ali are, Yasmin Imtiaz Ali (later Yasmin Tahir) who became a distinguished broadcaster. Syed Imtiaz Ali Taj was conferred the ‘ Sitara e Imtiaz’, Hijab Imtiaz Ali was conferred Tamgha e Imtiaz and Yasmin Tahir was conferred ‘Sitar e Imtiaz’ as a broadcaster.
Further in the line of decent are our sons: Faran Tahir, Mehran Tahir, Ali Tahir and their children. ‘Children’ include; Faran and Marie’s : Lena and Javan Tahir, Mehran and Ayesha’s : Taha and Noor, and Ali and Wajeeha’s : Alvina Tahir. All the family members are aware of the great tradition and cherish it and respect it.
Muhammadi begum has a long list of writings. She wrote for women, children and all. She wrote in prose as well as poetry. The list is included along with her biography in this collection. I succeeded in tracing the one and only photograph of hers and, after verifying beyond doubt, it is also included in the publication.
Syed Ahmed Shafi wrote a long letter to his daughter at the time of her marriage on how to conduct herself in her new role. This letter and Muhammadi begum’s response are also included in the publication. The originals written in hand are part of Taj archives. In fact the idea of publishing Muhammadi Begum’s biography by her loving elder siter started with the discovery of her hand written manuscript. However while going through it my interest increased. I wanted to know more about her, her family and friends. I also traced out one of her diaries with daily records of 1907. Which was just one year before her sad demise. I also discovered hand written correspondence between Muhammadi Begum and her father Syed Ahmed Shafi. I therefore felt that the phenomena of “Muhammadi Begum” is better understood in the context of the society and family. I therefore decided to share most of what I had researched and discovered.
I have included briefs on Syeda Muhammadi Begum’s family. Her elders as well as the younger generation. The sketches of her senior family members, and their close friends are indication of the kind of social environment, enlightenment, and education which contributed to develop her personality. Her tradition was carried on by those coming after her. I also hope that the data I have put together after considerable research will encourage future scholars to discover more about her as well as the movement she symbolized.
MAY GOD BLESS SYEDA MUHAMMADI BEGUM AND HER FAMILY.
Naeem Tahir. December.2016.
Note:1. The only photograph of Muhammadi begum was found by me in Taj archives. There were several original copies of it carefully kept. Photo was taken by Shanker Das and Company, Lahore. It is not dated. I wondered but also felt that no photograph could have been kept with such care unless she was Syed Mumtaz Ali’s wife and Syed Imtiaz Ali Taj’s mother. I got a verification through Mr. Nasir of Mushfiq Khawaja Archives who found it published in the magazine “Ismat” Karachi, August-September 1908, Volume121,Issue 2-3, Special issue “ AlmasiJubli Number”
Note2. I chose to write this note in English to encourage those who are more comfortable with reading English, particularly the foreign scholars and our younger generation.Hopefully it will generate some interest in the subject.
Lahore, December 15
AN EXTRACT FROM THE BOOK COMPILED BY NAEEM TAHIR AND UNDER PUBLICATION.