Observations on the Mussulmauns of India
By Meer Hassan Ali
Public Domain Books
Very little is known about the authoress of this interesting book. She is reticent about the affairs of her husband and of herself, and inquiries recently made at Lucknow, at the India Office, and in other likely quarters in England, have added little to the scanty information we possess about her.
The family of her husband claimed to be of Sayyid origin, that is to say, to be descended from the martyrs, Hasan and Husain, the sons of Fatimah, daughter of the Prophet, by her marriage with her cousin-german, ’Ali. The father-in-law of the authoress, Mir Haji Shah, of whom she speaks with affection and respect, was the son of the Qazi, or Muhammadan law-officer, of Ludhiana, in the Panjab. During his boyhood the Panjab was exposed to raids by the Mahrattas and incursions of the Sikhs. He therefore abandoned his studies, wandered about for a time, and finally took service with a certain Raja–where she does not tell us–who was then raising a force in expectation of an attack by the Sikhs. He served in at least one campaign, and then, while still a young man, made a pilgrimage thrice to Mecca and Kerbela, which gained him the title of Haji, or pilgrim. While he was in Arabia he fell short of funds, but he succeeded in curing the wife of a rich merchant who had long suffered from a serious disease. She provided him with money to continue his journey. He married under romantic circumstances an Arab girl named Fatimah as his second wife, and then went to Lucknow, which, under the rule of the Nawabs, was the centre in Northern India of the Shi’ah sect, to which he belonged. Here he had an exciting adventure with a tiger during a hunting party, at which the Nawab, Shuja-ud-daula, was present. He is believed to have held the post of Peshnamaz, or ’leader in prayer’, in the household of the eunuch, Almas ’Ali Khan, who is referred to by the authoress.
His son was Mir Hasan ’Ali, the husband of the authoress. The tradition in Lucknow is that he quarrelled with his father and went to Calcutta, where he taught Arabic to some British officers and gained a knowledge of English. We next hear of him in England, when in May 1810 he was appointed assistant to the well-known oriental scholar, John Shakespear, professor of Hindustani at the Military College, Addiscombe, from 1807 to 1830, author of a dictionary of Hindustani and other educational works. Mention is made of two cadets boarding with Mir Hasan ’Ali, but it does not appear from the records where he lived. After remaining at the College for six years he resigned his appointment on the ground of ill-health, with the intention of returning to India. He must have been an efficient teacher, because, on his resignation, the East India Company treated him with liberality. He received a gift of £50 as a reward for his translation of the Gospel of St. Matthew, and from the Court minutes it appears that on December 17, 1816, it was resolved to grant him 100 guineas to provide his passage and £100 for equipment. Further, the Bengal Government was instructed to furnish him on his arrival with means to reach his native place, and to pay him a pension of Rs. 100 per mensem for the rest of his life.
A tradition from Lucknow states that he was sent to England on a secret mission, ’to ask the Home authorities to accept a contract of Oudh direct from Nasir-ud-din Haidar, who was quite willing to remit the money of contract direct to England instead of settling the matter with the British Resident at Lucknow’. It is not clear what this exactly means. It may be that the King of Oudh, thinking that annexation was inevitable, may have been inclined to attempt to secure some private arrangement with the East India Company, under which he would remain titular sovereign, paying a tribute direct to the authorities in England, and that he wished to conduct these negotiations without the knowledge of the Resident at Lucknow. There does not seem to be independent evidence of this mission of Mir Hasan ’Ali, and we are told that it was, as might have been expected, unsuccessful.
No mention is made of his wife in the official records, and I have been unable to trace her family name or the date and place of her marriage. Mir Hasan ’Ali and his wife sailed for Calcutta, and travelled to Lucknow via Patna. She tells little of her career in India, save that she lived there for twelve years, presumably from 1816 to 1828, and that eleven years of that time were spent in the house of her father-in-law at Lucknow. In the course of her book she gives only one date, September 18, 1825, when her husband held the post of Tahsildar, or sub-collector of revenue, at Kanauj in the British district of Farrukhabad. No records bearing on his career as a British official are forthcoming. Another Lucknow tradition states that on his arrival at the Court of Oudh from England he was, on the recommendation of the Resident, appointed to a post in the King’s service on a salary of Rs. 300 per annum. Subsequently he fell into disgrace and was obliged to retire to Farrukhabad with the court eunuch, Nawab Mu’tamad-ud-daula, Agha Mir.
With the restoration of Agha Mir to power, Hasan ’Ali returned to Lucknow, and was granted a life pension of Rs. 100 per mensem for his services as Darogha at the Residency, and in consideration of his negotiations between the King and the British Government or the East India Company.
From the information collected at Lucknow it appears that he was known as Mir Londoni, ’the London gentleman’, and that he was appointed Safir, or Attaché, at the court of King Ghazi-ud-din Haidar, who conferred upon him the title of Maslaha-ud-daula, ’Counsellor of State’. By another account he held the post of Mir Munshi, head native clerk or secretary to the British Resident.
One of the most influential personages in the court of Oudh during this period was that stormy petrel of politics, Nawab Hakim Mehndi. He had been the right-hand man of the Nawab Sa’adat Ali, and on the accession of his son Ghazi-ud-din Haidar in 1814 he was dismissed on the ground that he had incited the King to protest against interference in Oudh affairs by the Resident, Colonel Baillie. The King at the last moment became frightened at the prospect of an open rupture with the Resident. Nawab Hakim Mehndi was deprived of all his public offices and of much of his property, and he was imprisoned for a time. On his release he retired into British territory, and in 1824 he was living in magnificent style at Fatehgarh. In that year Bishop Heber visited Lucknow and received a courteous letter from the Nawab inviting him to his house at Fatehgarh. He gave the Bishop an assurance ’that he had an English housekeeper, who knew perfectly well how to do the honours of his establishment to gentlemen of her own nation. (She is, in fact, a singular female, who became the wife of one of the Hindustani professors at Hertford, now the Hukeem’s dewan, and bears, I believe, a very respectable character.)’ The authoress makes no reference to Hakim Mehndi, nor to the fact that she and her husband were in his employment.
The cause of her final departure from India is stated by W. Knighton in a highly coloured sketch of court life in the days of King Nasir-ud-daula, The Private Life of an Eastern King, published in 1855. ’Mrs. Meer Hassan was an English lady who married a Lucknow noble during a visit to England. She spent twelve years with him in India, and did not allow him to exercise a Moslem’s privilege of a plurality of wives. Returning to England afterwards on account of her health, she did not again rejoin him.’ The jealousy between rival wives in a polygamous Musalman household is notorious. ’A rival may be good, but her son never: a rival even if she be made of dough is intolerable: the malice of a rival is known to everybody: wife upon wife and heartburnings’–such are the common proverbs which define the situation. But if her separation from her husband was really due to this cause, it is curious that in her book she notes as a mark of a good wife that she is tolerant of such arrangements. ’She receives him [her husband] with undisguised pleasure, although she has just before learned that another member has been added to his well-peopled harem. The good and forbearing wife, by this line of conduct, secures to herself the confidence of her husband, who, feeling assured that the amiable woman has an interest in his happiness, will consult her and take her advice in the domestic affairs of his children by other wives, and even arrange by her judgement all the settlements for their marriages, &c. He can speak of other wives without restraint–for she knows he has others–and her education has taught her that they deserve her respect in proportion as they contribute to her husband’s happiness.’
It is certainly noticeable that she says very little about her husband beyond calling him in a conventional way ’an excellent husband’ and ’a dutiful, affectionate son’. There is no indication that her husband accompanied her on her undated visit to Delhi, when she was received in audience by the King, Akbar II, and the Queen, who were then living in a state of semi-poverty. She tells us that they ’both appeared, and expressed themselves, highly gratified with the visit of an English lady, who could explain herself in their language without embarrassment, or the assistance of an interpreter, and who was the more interesting to them from the circumstance of being the wife of a Syaad’.
From inquiries made at Lucknow it has been ascertained that Mir Hasan ’Ali had no children by his English wife. By one or more native wives he had three children: a daughter, Fatimah Begam, who married a certain Mir Sher ’Ali, of which marriage one or more descendants are believed to be alive; and two sons, Mir Sayyid ’Ali or Miran Sahib, said to have served the British Government as a Tahsildar, whose grandson is now living at Lucknow, and Mir Sayyid Husain, who became a Risaldar, or commander of a troop, in one of the Oudh Irregular Cavalry Regiments. One of his descendants, Mir Agha ’Ali Sahib, possesses some landed property which was probably acquired by the Risaldar. After the annexation of Oudh Mir Hasan ’Ali is said to have been paid a pension of Rs. 100 per mensem till his death in 1863.
It is also worthy of remark that she carefully avoids any reference to the palace intrigues and maladministration which prevailed in Oudh during the reigns of Ghazi-ud-din Haidar and Nasir-ud-din Haidar, who occupied the throne during her residence at Lucknow. She makes a vague apology for the disorganized state of the country: ’Acts of oppression may sometimes occur in Native States without the knowledge even, and much less by the command of, the Sovereign ruler, since the good order of the government mainly depends on the disposition of the Prime Minister for the time being’–a true remark, but no defence for the conduct of the weak princes who did nothing to suppress corruption and save their subjects from oppression.
Little is known of the history of Mrs. Mir Hasan ’Ali after her arrival in England. It has been stated that she was attached in some capacity to the household of the Princess Augusta, who died unmarried on September 22, 1840. This is probable, because the list of subscribers to her book is headed by Queen Adelaide, the Princess Augusta, and other ladies of the Royal Family. She must have been in good repute among Anglo-Indians, because several well-known names appear in the list: H.T. Colebrooke, G.C. Haughton, Mordaunt Ricketts and his wife, and Colonel J. Tod.
The value of the book rests on the fact that it is a record of the first-hand experiences of an English lady who occupied the exceptional position of membership of a Musalman family. She tells us nothing of her friends in Lucknow, but she had free access to the houses of respectable Sayyids, and thus gained ample facilities for the study of the manners and customs of Musalman families. Much of her information on Islam was obtained from her husband and his father, both learned, travelled gentlemen, and by them she was treated with a degree of toleration unusual in a Shi’ah household, this sect being rigid and often fanatical followers of Islam. She was allowed to retain a firm belief in the Christian religion, and she tells us that Mir Haji Shah delighted in conversing on religious topics, and that his happiest time was spent in the quiet of night when his son translated to him the Bible as she read it.
Her picture of zenana life is obviously coloured by her frank admiration for the people amongst whom she lived, who treated her with respect and consideration. It is thus to some extent idyllic. At the same time, it may be admitted that she was exceptionally fortunate in her friends. Her sketch may be usefully compared with that of Mrs. Fanny Parks in her charming book, The Wanderings of a Pilgrim in Search of the Picturesque. Mrs. Parks had the advantage of having acquired a literary knowledge of Hindustani, while Mrs. Mir Hasan ’Ali, to judge from the way in which she transliterates native words, can have been able to speak little more than a broken patois, knew little of grammar, and was probably unable to read or write the Arabic character. Colonel Gardner, who had wide and peculiar experience, said to Mrs. Parks: ’Nothing can exceed the quarrels that go on in the zenana, or the complaints the begams make against each other. A common complaint is “Such a one has been practising witchcraft against me”. If the husband make a present to one wife, if it be only a basket of mangoes, he must make the same exactly to all the other wives to keep the peace. A wife, when in a rage with her husband, if on account of jealousy, often says, “I wish I were married to a grass-cutter,” i.e. because a grass-cutter is so poor that he can only afford to have one wife.’ Mrs. Parks from her own experience calls the zenana ’a place of intrigue, and those who live within four walls cannot pursue a straight path; how can it be otherwise, when so many conflicting passions are called forth?’ She adds that ’Musalmani ladies generally forget their learning when they grow up, or they neglect it. Everything that passes without the four walls is repeated to them by their spies; never was any place so full of intrigue, scandal, and chit-chat as a zenana.’ When she visited the Delhi palace she remarks: ’As for beauty, in a whole zenana there may be two or three handsome women, and all the rest remarkably ugly.’ European officers at the present day have no opportunities for acquiring a knowledge of the conditions of zenana life; but from the rumours that reach them they would probably accept the views of Mrs. Parks in preference to those of Mrs. Mir Hasan ’Ali.
Though her opinions on the life of Musalman ladies is to some extent open to criticism, and must be taken to apply only to the exceptional society in which she moved, her account of the religious feasts and fasts, the description of the marriage ceremonies and that of the surroundings of a native household are trustworthy and valuable. Some errors, not of much importance and probably largely due to her imperfect knowledge of the language, have been corrected in the notes of the present edition. It must also be understood that her knowledge of native life was confined to that of the Musalmans, and she displays no accurate acquaintance with the religion, life or customs of the Hindus. The account in the text displays a bias in favour of the Shi’ah sect of Musalmans, as contrasted with that of the Sunnis. For a more impartial study of the question the reader is referred to Sir W. Muir, Annals of the Early Caliphate, The Caliphate, and to Major R.D. Osborn, Islam under the Khalifs of Baghdad.
 Col. H.M. Vibart, Addiscombe, pp. 39, 41, 42.
 Diwan, chief agent, manager.
 p. 208.
 p. 182.
 p. 290.
 p. 227.
 Calcutta Review, ii. 387.
 pp. 80, 422.
 Vol. i, pp. 230, 453.
 i. 391.
 i. 450.
 ii. 215.