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Islam, Caste, Slavery: A narrative from early 20th century UP

Islam, Caste, Slavery: A narrative from early 20th century UP

Aap Beeti By Shaykh Abdul Majid Daryabadir a 00001


Maulana Abdul Majid Daryabadi

(Excerpts from Aap-Beeti (Autobiography) by Maulana Abdul Majid Daryabadi. 1978. Lucknow: Maktaba-e Firdaus. Translated by Ajmal Kamal.)

Maulana Abdul Majid Daryabadi (16 March 1892 – 6 January 1977) was an Indian Muslim writer and a renowned exegete of the Qur’an. Daryabadi was actively associated with the Khilafat Movement; Royal Asiatic Society, London; Aligarh Muslim University, Aligarh; Nadwatul Ulema, Lucknow; Shibli Academy, Azamgarh, and several other leading Islamic and literary organizations. ‘Aap Beeti’ is the autobiography of Daryabadi.)

“Performing your personal tasks with your own hands was in those days considered a bad thing and any moderately well-to-do household would have several servants at its disposal… Our household belonged to a small landlord as well as a high government official [Daryabadi’s father], so naturally the zanana [female] and mardana [male] quarters of our house carried an entire platoon of servants and maids, including nannies. Apart from the Sharia, even the law of the times did not allow keeping of laundis and ghulams [female and male slaves] but practically all these servants were nothing if not zar-khareed [bought in exchange of money]. Completely denied common human rights, they were as if home-grown cattle. Only sometimes they would get a kind and merciful master; one such was my late father.” …

Aap Beeti By Shaykh Abdul Majid Daryabadir a 00001

“I saw them treated like glorified animals in my whole biradri [clan] and, as I was by nature hot-tempered and rude, so my treatment with this entire class of people was even worse…” … “In Sitapur there I had no boy of my age from my relatives as my companion, nor was there any chance of finding any young neighbour around our Civil Lines kothi. There was my elder brother, with whom I was on friendly terms, but we were eight years apart in age. However, several girls of my age and younger to me, who were being brought up in our house hold, were there to play with (in the parlance of us Mian log [Shurafa Muslims], they were laundis and bandis [slave girls]). There were a couple of boys too from this class of adolescents, but older to me by a few years. In any case, all these girls and boys were much below me in status; I was master and owner, they were slaves and slave-girls; myself a Mian and all of them kaminas [of lowly birth and mean existence]. I was like a lion among them, I ruled over them. Would beat up anyone whenever I felt like, would say just anything at all to any one of them.” …

“How did so many of such girls end up in our home? Let me solve this riddle for you. Probably in the fifth year after my birth [i.e. around 1897] our province (which was then called North West Province or NWP) was hit by a frightening famine. It was so severe that those affected by it were forced to sell their children. Openly selling them was banned as per law, but girls in large number began to be abandoned and admitted to the government-run orphanages, and it was legally permitted by the government that anybody could take them home for feeding and bringing up. My father was already a Deputy Collector (posted perhaps in Basti district). He easily got hold of a large number of such girls. Some of them he distributed among our relatives and acquaintances and kept several of them for our household. Three among those girls were minors. The good man that he was, he would try to ensure that they would not face any atrocious treatment, and my mother too would treat them with as much softness as was possible. But once their possession was acquired, who would care about their ‘rights’ and Allah’s instructions [about treating slaves]. Society and biradri insisted that all these slaves were kaminas and neech [of lowly origin and status] and thus not worthy of any respect or human dignity. Except for deserving of something to fill their stomachs, they were as if cattle in human form, not actual human beings. The curse of untouchability had not remained limited to Hindus; Muslims, especially us the Mian log, had completely internalised it. Another trouble with affluent households was that these ‘zar-khareed’ young boys and girls used to be ‘allotted’ to the aqa-zadas and aqa-zadis [sons and daughters of the master] from an early age, so that each of these boys and girls would be as if legally owned by one of the master’s children. Thus, a boy elder to me by three-four years and a girl younger to me by three-four years had been allotted to me and I was practically made the owner of their destiny. The kind of morbid, even evil, mindset this feeling of being an absolute master, and the absolute sense of supremacy over them, was bound to produce is apparent – and, to top it all, I happened by nature to be hot-tempered. Apparent it is today – where was it apparent then? In that state of our society, it was hard to perceive this even when one became capable of thinking. Even good, polite and religiously pious people allowed themselves to flow in this current of cruelty and atrociousness as if they were deaf and blind. My animal self openly played itself out – what was there to stop it? Human selfishness itself was sufficient to perpetuate it; and then the entire biradri was there to encourage this attitude, so I would interpret ordinary acts of these unfortunate ones as an error and a crime, and punish them mercilessly. I’d consider myself supreme at every instant and treat everybody in my possession as dirt, resulting inevitably in the expression of extreme heartlessness and cruelty. Let alone reminding me of their ‘rights’, everyone around would encourage me by saying that ‘Mian, you have been too lenient with the rascal, he [she] deserved a punishment much severe than that.’ Only my father would on some occasions criticise me, or my mother would give some advice in a gentle way. I would obviously give no importance whatsoever to the mother’s soft pleading; and father would most of time be away from home anyway.” …

“Barbers, washermen, bhishtis [water-carriers], dhunias, julahas [weavers], ironsmiths, carpenters, labourers, farmers, coolies etc. came to be called kaminas [of lowly mean existence] and Sharafat meant that the bloodlines of the Mian log [elite Shurafa Musims] make them matchlessly meritorious… [They] felt insulted in indulging in trading, running shops or farming. Save zamindari, they entirely depended upon state employment or professions like that of a lawyer or hakeem [traditional medicine man]… People of the khidmati peshe-walas [service castes] such as barbers, bangle-makers, vegetable-sellers, butchers and so on were considered praja or raiyat [serfs or vassals]. They deserved no respect, nor did their women possess any honour. We Mian log treated them as Pharaohs would treat their subjects. When Mian log were sitting in their baithak [drawing room with a door opening on the street] there was no question that a lad belonging to a neech qaum [low caste] would dare cross their door riding a bicycle.” …

“Household servants and maids were unhesitatingly called laundi and ghulam. Since they did not carry any respect, nothing would be considered disrespectful or humiliating to them. Aqa-zadas and aqa-zadis in their childhood would establish their ownership rights over these adult men and women and rudely mistreat them in all possible ways. These unfortunate ones were not even allowed to buy good food or clothes from their own money; neech and kaminas as they were, they would be accused of competing with the masters if found eating and dressing well. The Hindu division of society into higher and lower castes had totally captured the imagination of Muslims as well. If such affluent zamindar families acquired some influential bureaucratic rank such as in the Police department, then there was no limit to their atrocities.” …

“My excesses far exceeded his [Mohib Ali’s] faults. Even during his childhood, and mine, he used to get severe physical beating from me. For a long time, a recently converted Muslim Shaban Ali was attached to me as my personal servant. A couple of years older to me, he had taken shelter in my household when he was a child and was given to me as my personal servant. Khidmat-guzari [servitude] in the Mian log households was – literally and actually – nothing but slavery and that is what came to be his fate too. Today I shudder to think of the severe atrocities that I allowed myself to do to him. Let alone the Islamic Sharia, even the Western culture does not provide a justification for this oppressive treatment. When both of us were past our boyhood, he proved himself to be a sincere and loyal servant, but why should we have released our iron grip of oppression? And I had become the harshest oppressor of all. I did such Satanic atrocities to him that it is hard to put them on paper. At last, he was forced to leave our house and died soon after… Remembering my evil deeds I come to hate myself; the only consolation for me is that the times I am talking about were the days of my atheism and apostacy. I returned to the fold of Islam after that… Another boy, Qudrat by name, who had been brought up in my household was about eleven… One evening I beat him mercilessly for some slight mistake of his. He naturally started crying and the more he cried, the more severely I kept beating him. He immediately disappeared from my house and we didn’t hear of him again. It would be no surprise if he had gone somewhere and died… Dargahi alias Moin, who now works in the office of Sidq [an Urdu weekly from Lucknow edited and published by Daryabadi] and has been my sincere and well-wishing servant, and Tegh Ali (Haji Mohib Ali’s younger brother) too have long suffered my atrocities. May Allah put some pity in their hearts that they do not demand any kind of revenge of me [on the Judgement Day]. For the last few years now, his [Tegh Ali’s] minor son is in my service. I am generally happy with him but, after all he too is human, so whenever I feel any discomfort because of him, I treat him with much cruelty… I am going to write in my will that from the third portion of my inheritance (which [according to Sharia] can be willed), these servants should get half…” …

“Dealing with servants, if they are working for compensation in cash or kind – that is, if they aren’t part of the household – is not so difficult. However, in our household most of the servants were khana-zad [home-grown], that is, their paternal and maternal grandmothers and grandfathers too had been serving the family, and even mothers and sisters of some of them had nursed our infants. Traditionally such servants should have rights ten times those of outside servants. However, what to say of full compensation, even a fourth could not be paid to them. Besides, scolding, beating, swearing are habits that have become too strong through generations to be abandoned immediately, especially when faced repeatedly from their side with laziness, negligence, ill-will and even meanness.”



Ajmal Kamal is a renowned scholar, literary critic and public intellectual from Pakistan. Kamal has been editing a literary magazine Aaj in Urdu since 1989. He is a doctoral fellow in South Asian University (Delhi) since 2016. He has also recently started a quarterly English journal of South Asian literature called City in July 2017.

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