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Published in the 15-30 June 2005 print edition of MG; send me the print edition

Book Review

A Captivating autobiography

By Ayub Khan

The Milli Gazette Online 

Amid Gods and Lords: My Life with Votaries of Religion and Law

Book: Amid Gods and Lords: My Life with Votaries of Religion and Law
By Tahir Mahmood 
Year: 2005; 
Pages: 356 h/b; 

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Former National Minorities Commission Chairman Tahir Mahmood is a brilliant scholar and academic known for his legal acumen. His prodigious works, especially relating to Hindu and Muslim personal laws, have been cited even by the Supreme Court of India. The awkwardly titled Amid Gods and Lords: My Life with Votaries of Religion and Law is his tell all autobiography. No stranger to controversy and with a reputation for bluntness, he tells the story of his life and the people he encounters in his own inimitable style.

Born in eastern Uttar Pradesh’s small town of Bahraich in a family of men of law and letters, Prof. Mahmood always had a certain competitive nature in him which reflects throughout the book. He does not take lightly any criticism or perceived slights that he had to face right from the beginning. He names and shames people who have ever dared to cross him. He was supposed to be many things----Supreme Court judge, Rajya Sabha member and the vice chancellor of Hamdard University. But every time his progress was sabotaged by overt enemies and others he thought were his friends.

The author cites instances of religious bias practiced against him that are to be faced by any Indian Muslim. Despite being a committed nationalist, his loyalty was doubted by his colleagues. In one instance, a colleague on hearing that he was going to read a poem reflecting his outrage over Radio Pakistan’s anti-Indian propaganda remarked, ‘did you really feel outraged?’

He is a deeply spiritual man who reportedly saw Prophet Muhammad (SAW) in a dream ‘recruiting’ him as one of his soldiers in his youth. That does not stop him from having some very unconventional religious views. He holds Qur’an Khwanis and Fatehas for the departed souls of non-Muslim neighbours and friends and does not believe that only Muslims will attain salvation. "If there is a God, in my opinion, it must be one and the same for all—there cannot be a God for the Muslims and another for the followers of any other religion; and if he is a Merciful and Compassionate God I cannot visualize Him reserving Heaven for one chosen community and committing all others to Hell," he writes.

Chief Justice Chandrachaud in his landmark Shah Bano judgment had quoted Mahmood at length from two of his books. This angered many including his friend Syed Shahabuddin who described him as a "darling of the Supreme Court." But Mahmood wasn’t offended by such comments and instead took them as a compliment. Regarding the controversial judgment itself he has mixed views—"Though happy with the honour the Supreme Court had conferred on me, and in agreement with the ratio decidendi of the Shah Bano judgment, I was unhappy with some of its obiter dicta. The court, in my opinion, should have avoided beginning the judgment with a reference to a biased orientalist’s provocative statement that ‘degradation of women is a weak point of Islam.’

He was disgusted with the way the Muslim Women Bill was being debated by laymen in the country and agreed with Justice VR Krishna Iyer’s view that "if Muslims pressed to much for the bill ‘the sleeping Hindu giant will wake up from its slumber.’ And it sure did in the form of the Ram Janma Bhoomi movement. Here again Mahmood foresaw the dangers of what would happen when Muslims would make this a life-and-death issue but no one listened to him. In the thick of the Shah Bano controversy he addressed a gathering of Muslim women in the Calcutta Maidan. On that occasion Syed Shahabuddin also spoke but deviating from the theme he lamented on the loss of Babri Masjid. When Mahmood requested him not to turn ‘that local issue into a national struggle’ he became furious. ‘Masjid mein agar but rakkhey houn tou ham nahi dekh saktey (if idols are placed in a mosque we cannot stand the scene)’ Shahabuddin reportedly shouted. 

Mahmood’s analysis of the Babri Masjid is very pertinent. According to him it was a ‘local issue which Muslim religious leaders turned into a national – and Hindu politicians misusing Hinduism into an international—issue."

Since Prof.Mahmood has already written a book on his work at the National Minorities Commission, he does not elaborate much in this one. He does, however, provide a glimpse of how he was elevated to that position, praise it received and how many people tried to take credit for it. Saiyid Hamid, another leading choice for some for that post and the declared government’s ‘final choice’ by the Urdu press, was kind enough to congratulate him on his selection. But Mahmood in his sarcastic style leaves us in no doubt what he thinks of him: "…Saiyid Hamid, although he did phone to congratulate me in the style of a defeated candidate congratulating his winning rival. I was, and remain, at a loss to understand how in view of his ripe age and total absence of any legal background Saiyid Hamid could really be the ‘only trustworthy name’ to head a quasi-judicial body like the NCM. But, is not anything possible in this country?" 

Mahmood writes at some length on his dealings with "Ali Miyan" (Abul Hasan Ali Nadwi), Asad Madani, Qazi Mujahidul Islam Qasmi and other leading lights of the Indian Muslim religious leadership. At the insistence of Qazi Mujahidul Islam Qasmi he translated the Majmu’ah-e-Qawanin-e-Islam, all 200 pages of it, from Urdu into English in a record two weeks. 

Amid Gods and Lords is an interesting book which provides a unique insight into today’s Indian society and the many struggles that Muslims have to face in it. A little more humility on the author’s part would have made it a more worthwhile read. That said, however, there is never a dull moment anywhere in the book.  «

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