Much has been written on the works of 19th-century Muslim modernists as well as conservative reformists. Yet, somehow, the name of one rather fascinating scholar and theologian has somehow gone missing – despite the fact that he might have been the most far-sighted.
His name is Maulana Mumtaz Ali whose tome Huqooq-i-Niswan (women’s rights) shocked even his better-known modernist contemporary Syed Ahmed Khan. The book penned in Urdu, in the late 19th century, is remarkably far-sighted in that Mumtaz highlights certain women-related issues that have only now become the subject of open discussion in the larger Muslim world. And yet, this book has hardly ever been reprinted. But in 1967, an abridged translation of the book was made available in 1967 by the well-known academic and author Aziz Ahmad.
What’s even more remarkable is that Maulana Mumtaz originally belonged to the conservative Muslim reformist tendency, before he broke away and became a contemporary of Syed Ahmed Khan. Maulana Mumtaz writes that Islam treats men and women equally because “physical strength is no criterion for superiority.” He adds, “Indeed, women have to perform certain biological functions for which their nervous systems are conditioned, but this is not a proof of their intellectual or biological inferiority.”
He writes that the anti-women perception associated with Islam was the outcome of ancient interpretations of Islam’s sacred texts and was influenced by the antique customary laws that the exegetes were following and living under.
He insists that such interpretations have nothing to do with the true spirit of the sacred texts. On the allowance of polygamy in these texts, Mumtaz argues that when the Muslim holy book says that a man cannot take care of all his wives equally, it is actually cautioning against having more than one wife.
Mumtaz further writes that “(Muslim) female education was a historical necessity.” On the criticism of the time’s ulema that educated women become “immoral,” Mumtaz points out that immorality is not due to educated women, but “mainly because of the distorted impulses of men who are used to segregation.” He predicts that this mindset would change with time.
Without openly advocating that women seek out their husbands for themselves, Mumtaz writes that “marriages in Muslim India are arranged and loveless.” He adds that since most Muslim women were uneducated, they accepted such marriages as their fate and did not know how to address “the tyranny of their husbands” which might be the result in such situations.
On purdah or veiling for women, Mumtaz clarifies that the Islamic concept of purdah is simply about observing modesty by both men and women. He writes that the sacred verses dealing with this concept were directly addressing the 6th and 7th century Arab society and “are thus only relevant to that age and time.”
He, then, makes a rather interesting observation by stating that the kind of purdah being practised by Indian Muslim women in his time (the 19th century) “was a fairly recent development.” Here he is alluding to the burqa.
Maulana Mumtaz was writing in the 19th century so one can assume that the burqa is a 19th century creation, just as other forms of veiling such as the hijab is a 20th century innovation. Mumtaz adds that “forcing the veil on women is a flagrant injustice” and against the faith’s spirit and meaning of morality.
On the criticism he faced by those who bemoaned that the emancipation of women would lead them to commit immoral acts, Mumtaz writes that instead of blaming the women, action should be taken against those who treat them as an object of immorality.
How relevant is that even today!