At a time when social scientists are engaged with the overriding theme of identity politics and with issues of identity-formation in South Asia, Mohamed Ali's insights enable us to understand how a specifically Muslim identity was being constructed in early twentieth century north India. This is particularly so at a time wheh scholars are also trying to come to terms with , communal' or communitarian solidarities and their role in the private and public domains. Finally, My Life: A Fragment illumines how influential public figures like Mohamed Ali reflected on the changes ushered in by the colonial government and their impact on his community and the nation.
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Since its publication in January 1942, Mohamed Ali's My Life: A Fragment has been widely read and used by scholars and generalists alike. In the subcontinent, it is regarded as a major statement by one of the chief protagonists of various Muslim causes. The authenticity of the book, which was originally entitled 'Islam: Kingdom of God', is not in doubt. Its distinct style is consistent with the tone and tenor of its author's letters, articles and speeches.
Afzal Iqbal was the first to edit the manuscript. He had received it in 1939 from Mohammad Mujeeb, the scholar and later vice-chancellor of Delhi's Jamia Millia Islamia. Mujeeb, who had been impressed with Mohamed Ali in the early 1920s when he met him in London as a student, became highly critical of the man and his mission in later years. Having lost interest in editing 'Islam: Kingdom of God'. the title Mohamed Ali gave to the book in the making, he would have probably agreed to part with the typescript. 'To this slim and impressive intellectual,' wrote Afzal Iqbal in his introduction to the' newly-coined title My Life: A Fragment, 'I looked for help which he gave me ungrudgingly and in full measure.'
Mohamed Ali was a prolific writer from his student days at Aligarh. Yet he did not consider writing a book until he was interned in 1923, along with Shaukat Ali (1873-1938) and others, after the Karachi trial. On 23 July 1916, he wrote from Chhindwara, then a small and inaccessible town in the Central Provinces (now Madhya Pradesh), to Abdul Majid Daryabadi (1892-1997), one of his numerous admirers at the time:
You suggest to me that I should write a book during my enforced leisure, and that our people expect one from me. If that is so, I am afraid they don't know me. Firstly, I have neither the patience, perseverance nor the temper of the researchist [sic]. Secondly, my emotions are much too strong to permit what intellect I may possess to be exerted in the writing of a book.... No, my friend, my brain is far too busy (and so is my heart) to allow of any leisure for such 'pastimes' as authorship. (Abdul Majid Daryabadi Papers, Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, New Delhi)
Soon after being convicted in Karachi, Mohamed Ali set out to write a biography of the Prophet of Islam. But he did not make much progress. He then began writing a multi-volume history of Islam. Having completed the first part in gaol, he was caught up in the political controversies and [++Page 10 Preface] could not therefore complete the book. 'Curiously enough,' Afzal Iqbal writes, 'Mohamed Ali had never meant to write the present book. He started with the life of the Prophet and ended with his own.' He did, however, write a great deal more than many of his contemporaries. He wrote hundreds of routine letters as editor of the Comrade and Hamdard, poems to fill a not-so-slim volume, and miscellaneous historical, literary and political pieces to fill another (Rais Ahmad Jafri (ed.), Selections from Mohamed Ali's Comrade, Lahore, 1965; and his Ifadat-i Mohamed Ali, n.d.; Mohammad Sarwar (ed.), Mazameen-i Mohamed Ali, in 2 vols., 193 8). During his internment (191 1-May 1915; 1921-3) and trips to Europe, he wrote regularly to friends and family members, detailing his routine in gaol, reporting meetings with people who travelled from far and wide to meet him, and dwelling at length on his encounters with various officials in jail (Mushirul Hasan (ed.), Mohamed Ali in Indian Politics, in 3 vols.; Shan Muhammad (ed.) Unpublished Letters of the Ali Brothers, 1979; and Abu Salman Shahjahanpuri (ed.), Siyasi Maktubat Rais-al-Ahrar, 1978). In Europe, where he met scores of public figures and addressed numerous meetings from January to September 1920, he shared his experiences with brother Shaukat and friends (Mohammad Sarwar, Maulana Mohamed Ali Ka Europe Ka Safar, 1943).
Mohamed Ali's letters, now mostly published, constitute a major corpus of pan-Islamic literature in the subcontinent and uncover major themes that concerned his generation of educated Muslims. The tone in his correspondence constantly varies from boredom and depression, on the one hand, to exhilaration and conviction on the other, now relaxed and desultory, now indulging in flights of fantasy or burlesque. A flair for the dramatic, coupled with a wry self-awareness, a temperament that allowed the fullest reins to intellectual enthusiasm while never really realising personal ones. This complexity is also revealed in his speeches.
My Life: A Fragment is an important personal statement on how some educated Muslims lived through the turbulent decades following the death of Syed Ahmad Khan in 1889. It mirrors their fears and aspirations, as ,also their commitment to the political and intellectual regeneration of the Muslim communities in the subcontinent. It is, above all, a reflective account of an individual's intellectual and spiritual journey at a time when the anxieties of several Muslim groups were heightened by a number of developments in India and the world of Islam. For this reason, My Life is a document of deep religious feeling and serves to illuminate Mohamed Ali's inner self-awareness of Islam. Its author did not claim to be an authority on Islam, but considered his 'first duty' to share his reading and [Preface ++Page 11] understanding with fellow-Muslims. In his own words: 'Experts often write for experts, but I am so to speak, "the man- in-the- street". The individual experience which I relate wiI4 make this clear, and being typical of the history of so many Muslim lives of my generation, it will not, I trust, be altogether lacking in interest.'
I have now said all that I need say about my religious antecedents and my present attitude towards Islam and its theology and I fear I have said it at much greater length than I wished, and would have done if I had been able to devote more time that expression and concentration require. But an inherent and almost ineradicable [sic] tendency towards diffusion and a fatal attraction for tangents found a good ally in the condition of my prison life when work at a stretch. . . , was impossible and only snippets of time were available for dashing off a few scores of lines at a time. Doubtful as I feel about completing my task I feel almost certain that even if I am enabled to do so within a reasonable time I would not have the leisure for any but the rapidest revision before I hand over the manuscript to the printers. But in the circumstances of which now the reader shares the knowledge with the writer, he thinks he can rely on a generous measure of the reader's indulgence.
The importance of My Life is enhanced by the absence of a similar text written by any other leading actor of the period. Shibli Nomani (18571914) wrote a great deal, but he died long before the excitement caused by the Khilafat issue. Maulana Abul Kalam Azad (1888-1958) did not write much besides his commentary on the Quran. Jawaharlal Nehru (1889-1964), an admirer of the Maulana's scholarship, noted in his prison diary: 'Free thinker and magnificent writer as he is, he should have turned out a host of splendid books. Yet his record is a very limited one' (Christmas Day, 1942, Selected Works of Jawaharlal Nehru, S. Gopal (ed.), vol. 13, p. 39).
At a time when scholars are attempting to delineate the contours of Muslim identity in South Asia, Mohamed Ali's My Life enables us to understand how some Muslim constructed their identity in a colonial context. For this reason, this book invites comparison with other texts written around the same time in other countries by Muslim scholars and publicists. At a time when scholars are concerned to unravel the complexity of 'communal' or communitarian identities, it is important to consider how Mohamed Ali reflected on a society that was being gradually transformed by far-reaching political, administrative and bureaucratic changes.
A final editorial point: I have neither modified nor altered the printed text, even though the narrative is often verbose, incoherent, repetitive and full of digressions. I have merely changed some chapter sub-headings [++Page 12 Preface] (e.g. 'At Mother's Knee' instead of 'At the Mother's Knee; 'Aligarh's raison d'etre' instead of 'Aligarh and its raison d'etre'), rectified the printing errors, and standardised the spellings, e.g. Kanpur for Cawnpore; Awadh for Oudh; Quran for Qur'an; madaris for madarsahs; Matthew for Mathew(s); makatib for maktabs; Medina for Madinah; Umayyad for Omayyad. I have italicised Arabic, Persian and Urdu words and introduced biographical and explanatory notes to make Mohamed Ali's account accessible to the readers.
The introduction, based in part on the arguments and materials presented in my previous publications, has appeared in the volume Islam, Community and the Nation: Muslim Identities in South Asia and Beyond (Delhi, 1998). Biographical and explanatory notes are based on: Shorter Encyclopaedia of1slam, edited by H. A.R. Gibb and J.H. Kramers (Leiden, 1974); The Cambridge Encyclopedia, edited by David Crystal (Cambridge, reprinted with updates and corrections, 1991, 1992); E.J. Brill's First Encyclopaedia of Islam, vols. 1-9; The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, edited by F.L. Cross and E.A. Livingstone (Oxford, 2nd edition, 1974); The Encyclopaedia of Islam: Glossary & Index of Technical Terms to Volumes I-VIII, compiled by J. Van Lent, edited by P.J. Bearman (Leiden, 1997).
I appreciate the help and advice of Alok Bhalla and Aziz al-Azmeh. Their intellectual support spurred me to edit this book. I am grateful to a large number of people, especially Professor Wolf Lepenies, the Rector of the Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin (Institute for Advanced Study Berlin). For their courtesy and ungrudging help at the Wissenschaftskolleg, I am much obliged to Barbara Sanders, Corina Pertschi, Christine von Arnim, Mrs Gesine Bottomley, Anja Brockmann and their colleagues in the Fellow Services and the Library. Doris Reichel made life easy with the computer. Elissa Linke scanned, edited and formatted the book for me. I am greatly indebted to her.
Webbed by Philip McEldowney