By Asghar Ali Engineer
IT is generally thought that the movement for women’s rights began with western-educated people in the 19th century. But very few people know about Maulvi Mumtaz Ali Khan, a traditional scholar and a product of Darul Ulum Deoband, who was a very enthusiastic supporter of gender equality.
There are two things to be noted here: one, that maulvi sahib was a traditional alim and was not under the influence of western thought, and two, that he advocated gender equality purely on the basis of Islamic traditional sources, i.e. the Quran and hadith. He was an enthusiastic supporter of women’s rights, and a contemporary of Sir Syed Ahmed Khan. The latter had a lot of trouble on his hands because of his campaign for a modern educational institution for Muslims of northern India.
Sir Syed faced stiff resistance from orthodox ulema, and did not want more trouble. He advised Mumtaz Ali Khan, one of his supporters, not to publish his book Huqooqun Niswan, the manuscript of which he had shown to Sir Syed. However, maulvi sahib was very enthusiastic about women’s rights, and wanted to educate Muslim men and women; he went ahead with the publication.
Huqooqun Niswan, I dare say without any exaggeration, is like a charter of rights for Muslim women. Mumtaz Ali Khan substantiates from the Quran through his interpretations of relevant Quranic verses that men and women have equal rights and that men have no authority over women, as believed by Muslim men. This book, because of its advocacy of women’s rights, soon went into oblivion and was not available.
I obtained a copy from a US library and republished it. It must be read by all Muslim women to be duly armed with Quranic arguments to fight their case for gender equality. Maulvi Mumtaz was married to a woman who was not educated; he not only educated her but also made her the editor of a women’s magazine, which became quite popular in those days. The magazine, besides educating women about their rights, also made women aware of contemporary socio-cultural issues.
Based on his interpretation of Quranic verses, maulvi sahib’s arguments were quite ingenious. He took note of all traditional arguments by which men asserted their superiority over women. He called such superiority as ‘mardon ki jhuti fazilat’ (false superiority of men). For example, men usually argued that if women were equal to men why did Allah not grace a woman with prophethood (nubuwwat). Mumtaz Ali Khan gives an ingenious reply to this argument.
He says that according to a tradition there have been 124,000 prophets and we know the names of only about a dozen. How can we then say that there were no women prophets at all unless we know all the names? Similarly, his reply to the argument as to why women should bear half the witness of a man if they are equal to men, was this: the Quran does not say that women are half a witness but only recommends that in financial transaction one have two women and one man if two men are not available. This, according to Mumtaz Ali, is a privilege for women rather than a stigma, as two women have been recommended because often women have certain issues like menstruation or pregnancy, and they cannot go to court to bear witness. Such privilege is not available to men. Thus, according to maulvi sahib, it is a privilege, not a stigma for women.
He also refutes the argument that Allah first created Adam and then Eve and hence Adam has superiority over Eve. Mumtaz Ali Khan refutes the argument by saying that these are stories taken by commentators of the Quran from Christian and Jewish sources; the Quran itself does not say Adam was created first and then Eve for his comfort and company. From the Quran one cannot prove who was created first and who was created next.
Similarly, the argument about the permissibility of four simultaneous marriages is also effectively refuted, as he says that there is no clarity in the verse (4:3) as to whether it allows four wives simultaneously, or one after the other or divorcing one and marrying a second, and so on. According to him, having four wives simultaneously is not the intention of the Quran for which he gives elaborate arguments.
In any case it is a most interesting book with alternative interpretations of Quranic verses as far as women’s rights are concerned. One can say that it is the first feminist interpretation of the Quran in the subcontinent, as early as in the 19th century.
The writer is an Islamic scholar, who heads the Centre for Study of Secularism & Society, Mumbai.