In one of his articles, Dr Asif Farrukhi discussed Deputy Nazir Ahmad’s novel Taubatan Nasooh (The Repentance of Nasooh). In this novel, Deputy Ahmad shows the titular Nasooh burning books that he finds objectionable. My friend, the writer Ajmal Kamal, reminded me that, ultimately, Deputy Ahmad himself became a victim when, in the winter of his life, one of his own books was banned and burned.

Here we get into some interesting details that many readers might not know. The world has seen the banning of thousands — and burning of hundreds — of books over the centuries. We have heard about how great scholars and scientists were forced to apologise for their ideas that ultimately proved correct. We have read theories that offended many in the beginning, but prevailed in the long run. From Ibn Sina (Avicenna) and Ibn Rushd (Averroes) to Giordano Bruno and Galileo Galilei, there is a long list of iconoclasts who challenged the ignorance of society and ended up being killed or persecuted.

But sometimes, even the conservative lot becomes a victim of its own medicine. These conservatives can be categorised into two broad groups that may have many sub-groups. The broad groups I suggest are conservatives with a reform agenda and conservatives with a revivalist agenda. Though there are many overlapping features of the two groups, at times they fall afoul of each other and target prominent figures of groups that may be only slightly different from each other.

The leaders or scholars who try to inculcate some sense and promote some tolerance or have a slightly reformist approach are projected as infidels or heretics. Sir Syed Ahmad Khan, Deputy Nazir Ahmad and Shibli Nomani fall in this category of conservative reformists who were devout Muslims, observed most — if not all — religious obligations, sported beards and wrote about religion extensively. But, despite being reformists, their approach was overall conservative. Sir Syed, for instance, was a great promoter of modern education of his time — but only for boys; he was not particularly in favour of girls’ education to bring them out of their homes. Nomani enraged his critics with his book Ilm ul Kalam [Science of Scholastic Theology].

Though Azeem Baig Chughtai, Niaz Fatehpuri and Yagana Changezi were also subjected to insults and humiliations of various degrees, they were not conservatives of any sort. Deputy Ahmad wanted to reform the Muslims of India, but again, in a conservative way. He wanted girls to be obedient and boys to be traditionalist. That is why his Nasooh burns the books of his son, to contain the spread of new ideas. But then, why did Deputy Ahmad end up witnessing his own books burned by a crowd of those who did not like his innovative ideas in history, literature and the translation of scriptures?

Despite his credentials as a conservative, religious scholar, Deputy Nazir Ahmad too fell victim to charges of blasphemy and to book burning

To understand this, we must know about at least four important characters of the drama that unfolded in the early decades of the 20th century. These four personalities who, sooner or later, became involved in this controversy were Hakeem Ajmal Khan, Abdul Majid Daryabadi, Azeem Baig Chughtai and Deputy Ahmad’s grandson, Shahid Ahmed Dehlavi. All were personalities of considerable repute among the Muslims of India. The anger of the conservative lot against Deputy Ahmad was led by the Nadvatul Ulema — established in 1894 by Mubarak Mongeri — based on two counts: one, Deputy Ahmad had used lax language while translating the scriptures and two, he had written a book, Ummahat ul Ummah [Mothers of the Believers], about polygamy in the early Islamic period.

In both, his diction was more colloquial than formal. He did not use any respectful prefixes, suffixes and titles with the names of prominent apostles, companions and even prophets. The book is available online, so anyone can see it is written in a free flowing style in the idiomatic Urdu of Delhi.

Interestingly, most writings about Deputy Ahmad have glossed over this episode in a cursory manner. For example, in Maulvi Nazir Ahmad Ki Kahani, Kuch Unki Kuch Meri Zabaani [The Story of Maulvi Nazir Ahmad, In His Words and Mine], Mirza Farhatullah Baig writes, “Maulvi Sahib was being widely criticised for his Ummahat ul Ummah. When I, too, brought up the subject, he said, ‘I really don’t see what there is in this book that has enraged people. You have read the book. So tell me if you found something questionable.’ I was familiar with his style of writing, so I replied, ‘Maulvi Sahib, your style of writing has a humorous aspect, which is suitable for fiction, but not for historical works, especially when they concern matters of religion. The disapproval that people are expressing can only relate to your style of writing.

“Maulvi Sahib said, ‘There was no such clamour over my translation of the Quran. People have reservations about that, too, but that’s a matter between you and God, while here we are talking about historical characters — people’.”

This exchange can be found on page 107 of Baig’s Urdu booklet published by the Urdu Academy Sindh, and on page 225 of the English translation by Amina Azfar, titled The Penitence of Nasooh and the Story of Maulvi Nazir Ahmad in His Words and Mine. There is nothing further in the booklet about the controversial episode. Similarly, Dr Saleem Akhtar, in his article ‘Kucch Nazir Ahmad Ke Baaray Mein’ [A Little About Nazir Ahmad] does not mention the controversy at all.

Raees Ahmad Jafri, in his eponymously titled article about Hakeem Ajmal Khan, writes: “We can gauge the religious feelings of Hakeem Sahib by the role he played in the resolution of the controversy that emerged when Deputy Nazir Ahmad published his book Ummahat ul Ummah. The book, at some points, used an arrogant and disrespectful style and tone that stirred a storm in the country. Nazir Ahmad’s intentions were good and he never meant to disrespect anyone, but his spicy language and idiom lacked academic grace and he reduced himself to the level of commoners.

“That is the reason his translation of the Quran was not placed on a higher pedestal, as expected of a scholar of his calibre, who had an impeccable command of the Arabic language. The controversy created by Ummahat ul Ummah turned the entire country, and especially Delhi, into a volcano. When the situation became volatile and Nazir’s life was in danger, Ajmal Khan stepped forward. His friends and foes all believed in his piety and Islamism. He resolved the matter with a reasonable and acceptable decision that ended the tumult and Deputy Nazir managed to save his life.” This article appears on page 174 of Shafi Aqeel’s compilation of some rare writings by prominent writers, published by Book Home in 2004.

Shahid Ahmed Dehlavi, in his sketch of Azeem Baig Chughtai, published in the January 1955 issue of the magazine Naqoosh, writes the following: “Maulvi Nazir Ahmad wrote a book, Ummahat ul Ummah, in response to a blasphemous padre who had written insulting remarks against some holy personalities of Islam. First, Sir Syed Ahmed Khan responded to him and then Nazir Ahmad wrote this book, which was an academic and historical book, but he didn’t use words of respect with any name. This was taken as disrespect, though Nazir Ahmad explained that, as the book was addressing that Christian padre, so he thought it unnecessary.

“And it so happened that many ulema [religious scholars] condemned the book to burning and Deputy Nazir Ahmad was declared a heretic. Then a responsible leader of the Muslims (Hakeem Ajmal) collected all the copies of that book from Nazir and, without his permission, took them to a large gathering of ulema where Habib Sherwani torched the books. After this sordid affair, Deputy Maulvi Nazir Ahmad lived for another three or four years, but didn’t write a single word.”

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