Barbara D. Metcalf
President of the Association, 2010
This presidential address was delivered at the 125th annual meeting of the American Historical Association, held in Boston, Massachusetts, in 2011. You can also watch video of the address online: part 1, part 2, and part 3.
Islam and Power in Colonial India: The Making and Unmaking of a Muslim Princess
Colonial Bhopal was one of hundreds of princely states, together covering a third of British India, whose rulers were promised support and internal autonomy in return for loyalty. The British, out of strategic considerations, not only preserved the Bhopal dynasty but subsequently opted to support four women rulers for more than a century, beginning in 1819. Such matriarchal succession was a complete anomaly among the princes, and wholly unprecedented among Afghan Pathans, or Pashtuns, the rulers' ethnic group of origin. Nawab Shah Jahan Begum (1838–1901), the “princess” of the title, was the third of these Afghan women rulers.
In the 1880s, Shah Jahan faced the greatest crisis of her career when two larger‐than‐life figures collided: her scholarly and ambitious nawab consort, Siddiq Hasan Khan (1832–1890), one of the foremost Islamic intellectuals of his era; and the strong‐willed, also ambitious Sir Lepel Griffin (1838–1908), one of the foremost civil servants, who held the powerful position of agent to the governor‐general for Central India. Issues about “the woman question” and about Islam were at stake for the colonial rulers and Indians alike. The Bhopal rulers were part of new Islamic reform movements with new visions for the roles of women and Islamic intellectuals. The colonial rulers, for their part, had revived fears about Islamic activism. Siddiq Hasan's extensive reformist networks across India and beyond, coupled with such practices as Shah Jahan Begum's adoption of purdah, in the end supplied Griffin with the bogeymen of “sedition” and “fanaticism” that he wielded in the struggle.
In a portrait taken in Calcutta a decade before the crisis, Shah Jahan Begum stands amid the typical studio props signaling colonial‐style drawing‐room respectability: table, vase, book, and parasol.1 (See Figure 1.) She gazes forthrightly ahead. She is dressed in the robes and heavy insignia of the Star of India, an order designed to unite selected Indian rulers and British officials as common feudatories of the queen.2 She also wears English‐style boots, worn by Westernized men in this period to avoid the humiliating colonial requirement of removal of Indian footwear in public buildings such as courts.3 She seems to be wearing European‐style gloves and frock as well. Her headdress, however, is traditional, as are her fitted churidar paijama.4 This was colonial‐style dressing à la mode.
In 1875, a caricature based on the photograph appeared in The Indian Charivari, a periodical modeled on the London Punch and published in Calcutta by and for the local British community. (See Figure 2.) It was labeled “A Good Example,” and the accompanying text expressed astonishment that “the advocates of ‘women's rights’” in Britain had not invoked Bhopal's female rulers. The current ruler there, they continued, was improving her territories, pursuing her literary tastes, even writing for newspapers—having chosen as her husband a “self‐made man” to assist her. Bhopal, they reported, was said to be “the model state of India.”
The drawing that accompanied this text, however, told a different story. Shah Jahan Begum turns out to be not a “good” example at all, but rather a “cautionary” one. The symbols of colonial respectability are gone. No book or parasol, no boots or gloves, and even the frock looks more like a kurta. Shah Jahan seems to have a “five o'clock shadow,” and her pose is arguably in a more masculine style. Instead of tidy fitted leggings, she wears flowing pajamas, and she totters on tiny, fancy shoes on feet as insubstantial as the legs of the chair on which she leans. Her plump profile and new scepter evoke Victoria herself, admired yet still a frequent subject of satire in those years. Finally, the artist has draped over the chair a map labeled “Barataria,” the fictional island awarded to Sancho Panza in Don Quixote and a byword for a nonsensical imaginary kingdom—as it would be later in the century in Gilbert and Sullivan's Gondoliers; or, The King of Barataria. The drawing, in short, mocks assertive womanhood, royal power, and princely India all at once, to the entertainment, no doubt, of readers who thus had their stereotypes confirmed.5 Colonialist approval was not always what it seemed. Shah Jahan Begum would learn this at great cost a decade later.
And additional stereotypes lay ahead, above all the new fears of Islamic activism. Evident especially in the aftermath of the great uprising of 1857, when Muslims were disproportionately blamed, these fears reemerged in the 1880s.6 Colonial officials assumed Muslim rulers to be always restive and particularly susceptible to the allure of subversive India‐wide or transnational Muslim solidarities. By the 1880s, as Britain's support for the Ottoman Empire wavered, the Ottoman sultan's attempt to forge a transnational, “pan‐Islamic” presence was a source of worry. The revolt of the Mahdi in the Sudan also seemed ominous.7 To some extent, these concerns were countered late in the century by the tentative policy that minority Muslim elites might be made a “loyal” bulwark, along with the princes, against emerging nationalist critiques of colonial rule. Support for the modernist Islamic thinker Sayyid Ahmad Khan, whose Aligarh College was founded in 1875 to train English‐speaking Muslims for colonial service and professions, was a prime example of this stance.8 The Bhopal ruler, as both “prince” and Muslim, should have been safe. But as a woman—unique among the rulers of the 600‐odd princely states—could she be trusted?9
Siddiq Hasan Khan was the problem. Speculation about his loyalty and presumptions concerning his control over his wife stimulated official anxiety. Add to that a new critique of royalty in general, evident in Britain in these years as Britain's own ruling family was increasingly limited to a role associated more with domestic and cultural symbols than with governing. In India, with the growing confidence of an “illusion of [colonial] permanence” coupled with a scientifically inflected embrace of racial hierarchy, the British found ways to marginalize many of the princes, for example by diverting real authority to a formal bureaucracy.10 Allegations of sedition could become one justification for doing so.
“Munshi Siddiq Hasan Qanauji,” as he was known when he arrived at the Bhopal court, was an unlikely spouse for any woman of the Bhopal ruling family.10 Marriages were supposed to be arranged by family elders concerned with issues of property, power relationships, and status, as had been the case with Shah Jahan Begum's first marriage. In 1855, Shah Jahan's mother, Nawab Sikandar Begum (r. 1847–1868), had effectively secured matrilineal succession by choosing for her only child someone outside the line of succession.12 He was her own adviser, a military man twice Shah Jahan's age and twice married with children. An old‐style Pathan, he shared few of Shah Jahan's emerging cultural and literary interests. Shah Jahan was not a docile wife, and she particularly chafed at her husband's insistence on seclusion. A French visitor, Louis Rousselet, was at the court in 1867 when the husband died. Rousselet went to offer his condolences, whereupon, to his surprise, he met an unveiled Shah Jahan, who, he reported, shook hands “in the English fashion.” She cheerfully responded to his expression of sympathy with the single word “Kismet.” She then apparently proceeded to talk about European affairs with energy and curiosity. According to Rousselet, Sikandar Begum accounted for her daughter's mood with a simple question: “Does the prisoner regret his gaoler?”13 Within the year, Sikandar Begum died, and Shah Jahan ascended the throne.
Shah Jahan's grandmother and mother, also both widowed, had ruled in a sense as unisex Pathan chiefs. They wore male dress and were known for their talents in riding, shooting, and directing their own troops. During the 1857 “Mutiny,” Sikandar, against notable family opposition, shrewdly organized her troops in support of the British. When Rousselet first met Sikandar, he did not realize she was a woman. “Her intelligent eyes,” he wrote, “[express] such a singular amount of energy that one must be aware of it beforehand in order to realise the fact that a woman is before you … Her gestures and manners still less remind one of her sex.”14 Dress at the court, he reported, was the same for women as for men. A photograph taken by a British army photographer visiting the court shows Sikandar at roughly the time Rousselet met her. (See Figure 3.).15
Shah Jahan Begum, in contrast to her mother, presented herself in many respects as a new‐style woman. A realistic painting shows her in modest female dress, in the domestic setting of her palace. (See Figure 4.16) The items on the table are telling. They include a clock, pointing to colonial‐initiated timekeeping; a book, pen, paper, and blotter, signaling participation in female education; and a European‐style call bell, a reminder that servants, like those pictured, are at her call.17 The tablecloth's English‐style embroidery, a skill cultivated by Shah Jahan, gestures to new practices of domesticity seen as part of “the new patriarchy” of the era.18
Marrying Siddiq Hasan Khan in 1871 stamped Shah Jahan Begum as part of that change. Hindu and Muslim elites alike had looked down on widows' remarriage as vulgar, even impure. Even Muslim elites—or at least elite women—married only within their own status group. Ending these restrictions was an emerging cause.19 In marrying Siddiq Hasan, Shah Jahan Begum broke both the taboo on widow remarriage and the abhorrence of marrying outsiders, a move that families saw as potentially undermining their material interests of property, and in this case, royal succession.
Shah Jahan commented on her marriage poetically in a chronogram celebrating the event. The verse was included in her diwan of Persian and Urdu verse, published in Kanpur two years later:
I arranged, at God's order, my second nuptial bond;
With Siddiq Hasan Khan of the Saiyyids, a conjunction;
From the lips of Shah Jehan Begum, shiiriin [“sweet,” her pen name]—
Hear this: Of the sun and the moon, a conjunction (iqtiraan).20
“I arranged” the marriage, she says, whereas the first time her mother had done so.21 This may be a second marriage, but it is “at God's order.” Siddiq, she asserts, is a Saiyyid, not a Pathan like the ruling family: it is understood that descent from the Prophet is a mark of excellence.22 And the union is a heavenly conjunction, the overlap of sun and moon.23 The conjunction is the prelude to the auspicious crescent of both Muslim and Hindu thought, symbol of new beginnings.24
Not everyone agreed.25 Key family members were outraged at what they saw as a wholly inappropriate mesalliance.26 A faction oppositional to Shah Jahan and Siddiq Hasan involved many members of her large family, including her only child, Sultan Jahan Begum, the heir apparent, as well as Sultan Jahan's husband and his large family.27 Siddiq Hasan, they complained, was an outsider, a nobody, someone who had arrived as a virtual peddler at the court. He was, they said, a schemer and a tyrant who favored his own family and others in his power.
What did Shah Jahan expect when she made this marriage? It is easy to see Siddiq Hasan's appeal. He was a man driven by a passionate cause.28 He was a master of words in multiple languages. He had traveled, whereas Shah Jahan had not. In 1871, when they married, he was newly back from an extended trip to the Hejaz, where he had performed the hajj and met leading thinkers engaged in Islamic reform. Whether Shah Jahan had or had not made an informed judgment about what marriage to him would entail, she readily entered into his life.
By the close of the nineteenth century, an “Urdu public sphere” buzzed with competition over correct Islamic interpretation and authority.29 Reformers, however much they differed among themselves, shared the assumption that people of the day had strayed from the original teachings, and that adherence to original texts, newly available in print and translation, was the route to renewal.30 The Ahl‐i Hadith scholars such as Siddiq Hasan stood apart from mainstream Hanafi scholars by rejecting simple adherence to the commentarial tradition of the classical law schools in favor of direct engagement with the sacred Qurˀ an and hadith.31 For the Ahl‐i Hadith, this jurisprudential stance encouraged a tendency toward literalism and a focus primarily on matters of ritual.32 They were also millenarian, a perspective adding urgency to their teachings.
Siddiq Hasan, already influenced by a Delhi‐based school of Islamic reform, identified his thought with that of one of the most influential Islamic thinkers of the era, the great Yemeni scholar Muhammad ibn ˁAli ash‐Shawkani (1759–1834).33 There were already Yemeni followers of Shawkani enjoying patronage at the Bhopal court when Siddiq Hasan arrived, and he soon became part of their circles. Siddiq Hasan's translations, editions, and commentaries on Shawkani and other thinkers were disseminated beyond India to the Hejaz, Cairo, Istanbul, and other Ottoman cities.
Much of Ahl‐i Hadith teaching overlapped with the teachings of other Islamic reformers, including opposition to what were judged to be polytheistic devotions linked to holy men and the Shiˁa imams. They too encouraged simpler life‐cycle rituals and greater fidelity in ritual practice. But they said “amin” out loud in the ritual prayer and raised their hands at a time when the Hanafis did not—differences sufficient in due course to stimulate lawsuits and even violence, and to define different networks of association and belonging.34
And that, indeed, was part of their appeal. Ahl‐i Hadith followers united around published and oral controversies and formed new voluntary associations that shared an explanation for the current decline and an agenda for taking action.35 Their allegiance had the additional cachet of being part of a larger transnational world of Arabic language and learning. This made it easy for opponents to label the Ahl‐i Hadith as “Wahhabis,” even then a term meant to conjure up fanaticism and a bent to violence. In fact, the Arabia‐based movement of Muhammad ibn ˁAbd al‐Wahhab al‐Najdi (1703–1792) differed notably from the Indian movements both in its embrace of violence in alliance with political power and in its jurisprudential position as Hanbali.36 The label in India had come into use in the 1820s and 1830s for Islamic thinkers whose work remained influential for the Ahl‐i Hadith. Their movement in the 1830s had undertaken a short‐lived jihad against one of the new warrior states of the era, the Sikh polity established earlier in the century in the subcontinent's northwest, which they believed to be oppressing Muslims. The jihad movement can be seen as the last gasp of the regional state‐building of the long eighteenth century. The reformist texts that emerged from this movement endured, and Siddiq Hasan was among those who gave them currency. Those publications, even if they dealt only with matters of belief and practice, were enough to arouse official suspicion.37
Colonialist fears were fueled by Siddiq Hasan's extensive networks.38 There had always, of course, been scholarly, trade, and other links across the western Indian Ocean and beyond, but nineteenth‐century British and Ottoman imperial structures both shaped and facilitated enhanced communication.39 Thanks to trains and steam, more Muslims went on hajj in those years, and there were resident Indians in the Hejaz as well: traders and representatives of Indian firms, pilgrim guides, and guardians of lodges and other foundations to serve pilgrims, as well as teachers and scholars.40 Particularly after the 1857 uprising, a number of Muslim intellectuals relocated to the Hejaz, where their scholarly circles flourished. Colonial officials feared their contacts with their counterparts still based in India. During the 1870s, Siddiq Hasan's unimpeded scholarly efforts flourished, and he established himself as perhaps the most influential activist on behalf of the Ahl‐i Hadith within India and beyond. With Shah Jahan's support, Bhopal soon joined Delhi as one of the two major centers of the movement.
If the energetic pursuit of an Islamic reform agenda was “the making” of Siddiq Hasan, a range of Islamic projects were also central to Shah Jahan Begum's life in these years. Her most visible program as a ruler consisted of extensive undertakings in urban planning and architecture, to the point that one recent art historian has judged her the most active woman patron of architecture in India ever.41 To be sure, much of Shah Jahan's building should be thought of as simply an expression of her princely power and not as Islamic at all, for example, the railways that integrated Bhopal with British India by the 1880s.42 She also built the structures of a model ruler of the day: presses, schools, hospitals, post offices, official guesthouses, and so forth.
The buildings Shah Jahan Begum cared most about, however, were not these, but palaces, gardens, and a spectacular mosque, designed to evoke the aura of the Mughals, whose great fifth emperor's name she bore.43 The embrace of Mughal symbols was essentially as new for the Bhopalis as building railways, since Bhopal, unlike Hyderabad, for example, had never been a Mughal province. Indeed, Pathans had routinely challenged Mughal rule. At the height of the Mughals' reign, to aspire to Mughal symbols had been a claim on upward mobility, not a sign of religious affiliation. Thus Hindu Rajputs in service to the Mughals had built not only palaces but also temples in a shared imperial style, its use a sign of cultivation and participation in the ruling elite.44 In the nineteenth century, the imperial style became the ambition of these warrior Afghans of Bhopal as well. Mughal symbols offered a claim on grandeur along with a place on the emerging national stage experienced through the new category of colonial “princes.”45
But by then, even if “Mughal” was not “Islamic” in the sense of being derived from sacred principles, “Mughal” was increasingly conflated with “Muslim” as part of colonialist and emerging nationalist histories alike. Rajputs in both histories and vernacular novels were now imagined as “Indians” defending a Hindu world against a Muslim “invader.”46 In Bhopal, political life took place outside such incipient nationalist imaginings, but the choice to emulate Mughals was made because the regime was Muslim. In her best‐known book, The Táj‐ul Ikbál Tárikh Bhopal; or, The History of Bhopal (1876), Shah Jahan used her history and travelogue to link the regime to the earlier Mughal state.47
In Shah Jahan Begum's own “Shahjahanabad,” the urban district given the name of Emperor Shah Jahan's Delhi capital, she utilized a style that could be called “Mughal revival.”48 Her vast palace complex was named the “Taj Mahal,” echoing the Mughals' most famous structure.49 In her mosques, graves, and ˁidgah, the imperial program and the Islamic program met. Her most dramatic building, towering over the city, was the Tajul Masajid, designed by an architect brought from Delhi and modeled on Delhi's Jamiˁ Masjid. Often counted as the largest mosque in Asia, it positioned Shah Jahan Begum as a highly visible protector and patron of Islam.50 One particular feature of the mosque, replicated in her vast ˁidgah prayer ground, was a dedicated area for women, in each running from front to back. This was an unheard‐of design element in South Asian mosques or ˁidgahs, but it cohered with Ahl‐i Hadith teachings that favored women's joining public congregational prayer instead of praying only in their homes. Graves were built in accord with the teaching that only dirt, no built structure, should cover the body. Shah Jahan thus asserted in stone not only that she was a pious ruler, but also that she was part of new trends in religious thought and practice.51
She also presented this image in words, made concrete and widely available through new technologies of print. Her preparation included studying the volumes of hadith and copying with her own hand the great Indian reformist tract of mid‐century, the Taqwiyatul Iman.52 She published a collection of hadith of her own selection.53 She also compiled “a dictionary,” the Khizanatul lughat (1886–1887), listing Urdu terms alphabetically, each translated into Persian, Arabic, Sanskrit, English, and Turkish.54 The choice of languages reflects Shah Jahan's transnational world, and some of the definitions show her reformist bent.55 Thus, to equate randi, the Urdu term used for both “widow” and “prostitute,” with the neutral equivalents she chose—such as zan (Persian), stri (Sanskrit), and “a woman” (English)—was a loud and clear assertion that widowhood carried no stigma.56
Most revealing of Shah Jahan's thought, however, is her manual on women's behavior. There was little publishing by women at all in the nineteenth century, and guidance of this sort written by a woman was wholly unprecedented in Urdu publishing.57 Tahzibun niswan wa tarbiyatul insan (The Refining of Women and Nurturing of Humankind, 1873/1874) invoked scriptural sanctions throughout to guide Muslim women in managing their worldly and spiritual well‐being. Thirty years later, one of the most influential Hanafi scholars of the twentieth century gave the work his approval, despite cautions against some explicitly Ahl‐i Hadith teachings.58
Organized from birth to death, the work covered everything from medical advice to correct ritual practice. It urged women to abandon illegitimate devotional rituals focused on the Shiˁa imams and holy men's tombs.59 Shah Jahan wrote for privileged women, for women with servants and women able to afford the practice of purdah. Throughout, she emphasized how important it was for women to save themselves and their families from helpless dependence. An unlikely metaphor for her quest for control came in her section on fitness, exercise, and martial arts, where she wrote at length on horsemanship and horses. Horses, she said, were singled out in divine scripture for God's particular favor. For her, the animal's virtue was precisely that the horse allowed its rider unfettered power and control. “To be sure,” she wrote, “elephant riding may have its glory, but the person on an elephant is completely powerless in the hands of the mahout.”60
Historians of India's colonial period adduce many reasons for the appeal of a scripturally based, ritually simplified, more individually focused “Protestant” style of religious practice.61 Shah Jahan shared the literacy and wider geographic experience of many of those for whom reformist Islam in this period was compelling. Beyond that, however, her personal experiences surely inclined her to the independence and certainty that came with a sectarian orientation, independently chosen and derived from literal, scriptural authority. With her formidable mother, family expectations generally, and vigilant colonial officials, she was always at risk of being effectively disempowered in the face of decisions executed by others on her behalf. With Siddiq Hasan and the teachings of the Ahl‐i Hadith, Shah Jahan found an arena for asserting herself as a new‐style learned woman, morally guided and free to act with confidence.
How does this dimension of Shah Jahan's personality fit with her support for female seclusion or purdah? She had initially justified her remarriage in part as a way of enhancing the respectability of a woman operating, without purdah, in public life.62 Seclusion, moreover, had not been the practice of either her mother or grandmother. Some officials, and certainly her opponents, saw her adoption of seclusion as a mark of Siddiq Hasan Khan's undue control over her in his efforts to grab power himself. Later historians have attributed her choices generally to her “more feminine” and even “frivolous” personality, implying agreement with this notion that she was simply compliant with her husband's choices.63
This argument misses the fact that the times had changed. The “woman question” had become a major theme among reformers of all religious backgrounds as privileged women, in theory saved from the colonized world, came to be assigned the novel role of being the guardians and transmitters of an endangered heritage. Reformers, including among Muslims not only modernists such as the Urdu writer Nazir Ahmad but traditionalists as well, urged the importance of girls' education. But, significantly, reformers across the spectrum also underlined the necessity of women's modesty and devotion to domestic values. For Nazir Ahmad, as for Shah Jahan Begum, part of being a new‐style, educated Muslim woman was in fact seclusion.64
Given these new themes in public life, it would not have served Shah Jahan Begum, like her mother, to operate, and even on public occasions to dress, just as a male would in the same position. The model woman now was married, and she was both educated and accomplished in domestic arts. The model woman did not mingle in mixed company. In the nineteenth century, the educated and cultured women most likely to speak in mixed settings and to interact with unrelated men were courtesans.65 In her letter requesting official British approval of her adoption of purdah, Shah Jahan explained that for sharif or respectable women, to be outside purdah was dishonor (ˁaar).66 Her role in public settings was in fact curtailed with purdah, but she continued her ruling activities. She met with officials and others, and she made public speeches, either from behind a screen or covered head to toe. The burqah, for all its limitations, provided respectability, as it would for generations that followed for whom participation in activities from university education to export‐oriented factory work was facilitated by such modest dress.
Shah Jahan told colonial officials that seclusion had religious sanction, an incontrovertible argument since the government was pledged to non‐interference in its subjects' religious practices. She also rather cavalierly presented family precedent in ways that can only seem to be wishful thinking.67 None of the colonial officials liked seclusion, not least because of the complications it entailed for occasions such as official visits. Shah Jahan was persuaded to delay the practice until after her trip to Bombay in 1873 for her initiation into the order of the Star of India. In 1876, when she traveled to Calcutta for the visit of the Prince of Wales, she remained heavily covered in public settings, including the formal ceremony sketched here in the Illustrated London News.68 (See Figure 7.) At a personal visit with the prince, however, she appeared like any respectable woman of the day with a sari palu or a scarf over her head, though it seems with her face lightly veiled. She was reported to have chatted amicably with the prince.69 (See Figure 8.) On the occasion of the first‐ever viceregal visit to Bhopal, in 1891, the agent to the governor‐general reported that “as a compliment to her distinguished guests HH came out of purdah during their visit.”70 The viceroy, Lord Lansdowne, who at one point chatted with her unveiled from outside her carriage, wrote to his mother that the Begum, “young for her age” at 52, was “not disagreeable to look at.”71
Covering had its advantages, beyond avoiding judgments such as these. Above all, like the marriage, it was understood to be “at God's order,” and was thus part of the fashioning of a pious self that Shah Jahan aspired to. Given Ahl‐i Hadith expectations of imminent end times, such piety was particularly urgent. Shah Jahan's adoption of purdah was empowering in a worldly sense as well—and not only in securing social respectability. She could see her male interlocutors, but they could not see her. That surely is one of the reasons that Sir Lepel Griffin hated her seclusion so much.
It was Griffin who precipitated Bhopal's crisis of the 1880s. Lepel Griffin was a “competition wallah” who had entered the elite Indian Civil Service in 1860 as the only successful candidate that year to have passed the competitive examinations without attending university. Assigned to the Punjab, he cut a dramatic swath through colonial society. According to the Dictionary of National Biography, Griffin was “a dandyish, Byronic figure, articulate, argumentative, and witty,” a man of “languid foppishness and irreverent tongue” as well as an “overt disdain for modesty.” “Because of his peculiar mix of talent and indiscretion,” the entry continued, Griffin was assigned several special projects, which produced a number of substantial publications on regional notables.72 He also took up with Dr. G. W. Leitner (1840–1899), principal of the Government College in Lahore and an advocate for Indian vernacular and classical languages, an inclination that fit as much with Griffin's own contempt for the Western‐educated Indian—the “Bengali babu”—as anything else.73 In 1878, Griffin's brilliance earned him appointment as chief secretary of the Punjab.
Griffin by these years was sufficiently notorious to be the model for a character in a Raj novel, The Chronicles of Dustypore (1875): the character was arrogant and flirtatious, but also, as “competition wallahs” were meant to be, brilliant and remarkably effective.74 Griffin himself, however, managed to look down on his fellow “competition wallahs.” He wrote that they were bookish, cut off from Indian society, and less part of the “manly” sport and hunting world than the old political appointees had been.75
In 1880, Griffin got the opportunity of a lifetime when the viceroy entrusted him with solving the disastrous aftermath of the Second Afghan War. The British Resident had been murdered, the amir ousted, the country divided between Kandahar and Kabul, and the population left chafing at occupation. The Bombay Gazette charted Griffin's progress from Calcutta to the frontier in a satirical effusion called “The Gryphon's Anabasis,” turning his surname into the hybrid lion‐eagle endowed with majestic power, known in this incarnation by the smell of his pomade, “the grease in his coal black hair.”76 His style aside, Griffin would in the end be given credit for nothing less than installing Abdur Rahman, “the Iron Amir” (r. 1880–1901), a ruler who managed to ensure Afghanistan's role for the British as a stable buffer state. To be sure, Griffin earned the viceroy's disapproval for infighting and attempts to manipulate press coverage in London and India alike, but he also was made a Knight Commander of the Star of India.
Fresh from this extraordinary moment, in 1881 Griffin arrived at Indore to take over as “Agent to the Governor‐General for Central India,” with responsibility for a number of princely states, including Bhopal.77 Shah Jahan Begum and Siddiq Hasan, soon to be part of Griffin's life in this new situation, were in some ways strikingly like him. All were, to some extent, “self‐made” in having risen to their current positions. All were given to strong points of view; all were known for their able talents; all were lightning rods for opposition. All three were ambitious, seemingly unfamiliar with self‐doubt, and ever ready to put pen to paper. And Shah Jahan and Griffin each turned out to be capable of unalloyed fury at what they deemed to be an insult or disrespect.
Almost from the beginning, Griffin's visceral dislike for the scholarly, “cowardly,” and, yes, arrogant outsider in Bhopal, Siddiq Hasan Khan, made him a ready audience for complaints from dissident factions.78 He took a great liking to Sultan Jahan, Shah Jahan's alienated, unveiled daughter, as well as to Sultan Jahan's tractable husband, who was more the old‐style Pathan. The husband was a good shot, albeit, in family memory, violent with humans, too.79 Siddiq Hasan, however, was not even a “manly” Pathan. Griffin focused on Siddiq Hasan's publications. Already in 1881, before Griffin's arrival, some of Siddiq Hasan's books had been confiscated at government order, and he had been issued a warning.80 Officials had also ferreted out some dozen agents whom he had commissioned to distribute his books; these were “munshis,” merchants, and military figures, located in cities across India and on to Rangoon.81 There were rumors, too, of the nawab's intrigues in places such as Constantinople and Afghanistan. Vague or not, official sentiment weighed the consideration that Siddiq Hasan offered “the chance of giving rather a marked lesson to the Indian Muhammadans in general.”82
There is, in fact, absolutely no indication that Siddiq Hasan had any interest whatsoever in fomenting discontent within India. He certainly utilized his many financial resources to get his books out. He was surely interested in information about the Sudanese mahdi, less as a sign for action than as a cosmological sign. Both he and Shah Jahan relished their transnational ties, whether British or Ottoman, as part of the late‐nineteenth‐century rise of a transnational aristocracy interacting on a grand scale.83 The Ottomans offered the Muslim Indian princes an alternate source of honors, and both Shah Jahan and Siddiq Hasan were among the Indian notables in the era whose charitable contributions and gifts were reciprocated with the grant of Ottoman medals. Shah Jahan gave her civil code, whose content to a great extent cohered with that of British India, the Ottoman name Tanzimat.84
But none of this had any relation to jihad. Siddiq Hasan was in fact one of many Indian Muslim writers who denied the legitimacy of jihad under British rule. His most important writing on this subject was his Interpreter of Wahabiism, translated into English and published in 1884. In it he insisted that he was not a Wahhabi and that he had many scripturally grounded reasons for devotion to the crown.85 To no avail. For Griffin, apparent content did not matter, since, he concluded, “educated Mahommedans [were] able to read between the lines.”86
“Sedition” as a crime is almost impossible to disprove, because it requires no actions, only attitudes of disaffection.87 The crime in democratic settings has been highly circumscribed by stringent tests of free speech. But in authoritarian colonial India, “sedition” was in the eye of the beholder. Government files make clear the easy slippage from recognizing Siddiq Hasan's book agents as part of a distribution network to interpreting them as people poised for a political plot. When a young Muslim “Police Inspector … only lately come to Calcutta from the Punjab” was assigned to find suspicious acts, one might guess that he knew that his job depended on “unearthing” networks of this sort.88
Translators faced with books to unveil similarly rose to the occasion. This was not hard. Siddiq Hasan and the Ahl‐i Hadith were millenarian, inclined to think that with the turning of the thirteenth Islamic century, the final days were at hand. Even the most mainstream theologians routinely wrote about signs of the end, cautionary teachings that focused attention on sin and reform. Reading these works not as a warning but as a call to action imparted a very different meaning to them. And they were read through a glass darkly. A stash of seven of Siddiq Hasan's books confiscated from an agent traveling to the Hejaz, still in the confidential file reporting their contents, in 2010 had many of their pages uncut.89 These books treated, to be sure, signs of the end time, but also subjects such as ritual obligations and proper marital relations.
For Griffin, the rulers he found in Bhopal would not have been of his choosing. Should the English ever leave, he wrote at one point, it would be elites such as the Sikhs and those he called “the Hindu rulers of old” who would survive the storm. Afghans in a region such as Central India were among those he described as “the new families whose birth was in war and plunder, … alien in blood and race and creed to the people over whom they too often oppressively rule.”90 Since he also scorned democracy, he may have thought little, moreover, of “self‐made” men. (He visited the United States halfway through his posting in Central India, and in his cavalier and disparaging account of American life, he makes these views clear.)91 As for women, he best made his point by identifying their qualities as identical to those of Western‐educated Bengalis, neither group deserving any political role at all. The shared qualities of Bengalis and women, he wrote, meant that Bengalis merited contempt “by stronger and braver races,” but made women “worthy of honour.”92 The bookish Siddiq Hasan fell short on all fronts.
And it was chivalric “honour” that Griffin wanted to offer Shah Jahan. Thus the pithy line that colonial Britons imagined “white men saving brown women from brown men” took concrete shape in Bhopal.93 Shah Jahan Begum, however, did not want to be saved—even if Griffin was convinced that Siddiq was nothing more than a rank deceiver who had duped a hapless woman, maybe even by using sorcery, to keep her in control.94
Griffin was relentless. As he saw it, the critical step was to free Shah Jahan from seclusion, and he tried every conceivable argument. It was not an Islamic requirement, he told her. She was not some Hindu rani, he nagged. And, having received her carte de visite, he wrote, “I have seen most of the princesses of Europe, and [no other face is so] lighted by high intelligence and wisdom.” To this last flight, Shah Jahan lightly replied that Griffin “seemed to imagine that [her] ideas and opinions were written on her face.”95
It is impossible to judge whether Griffin was correct that the combination of purdah and Siddiq Hasan's character meant that administration of the state had deteriorated into chaos and tyranny. As late as 1884, the agent to the governor‐general noted that although he would prefer that the Begum did not veil, it seemed to have no impact on the administration.96 As other British officials superciliously pointed out, by the standard of princely states, the administration of Bhopal was no worse than that of many others.97
Still, accusations against Siddiq Hasan on both fronts, sedition and maladministration, flowed to Calcutta from Griffin's pen. Griffin insisted that Siddiq Hasan deserved execution or transportation for life. He demanded of the viceroy “whether English officers and gentlemen and the direct representative of His Excellency the Viceroy [could] be required to transact business with a man whom they know to be a traitor to Her Majesty the Queen‐Empress.”98 By October 1885, however, the viceroy informed London that in his opinion it was prudent to avoid the charge of sedition. He requested approval—although there was no proof of “gross misgovernment”—for stripping Siddiq Hasan of all his honors, including the seventeen‐gun salute, the honorary gifts, and the very title “nawab.” He would also be barred from any further role in governing.99 Griffin announced the agreed‐upon measures at a public darbar in Bhopal on October 27, 1885. Shah Jahan Begum's fury was fueled by the utter humiliation of such a setting.
The sparring then began over the appointment of a minister as a device to move effective control away from Shah Jahan Begum as well. She was determined to have an Englishman, presumably hoping for someone who would remain outside local disputes and perhaps enhance her standing with the all‐important colonial establishment. Griffin, despite his firm belief that virtually any Englishman would be better, successfully insisted that in a “Mahomedan” state, the minister had to be “Mahomedan.”100 He prevailed. The “Mahomedan” appointee was known not to be very able. But the case for imposing him, namely maladministration in Bhopal, was in fact not what was at stake. What was at stake was marginalizing Siddiq Hasan and making sure that the Bhopal administration was malleable as needed.101
Shah Jahan Begum, despite these blows, soon rallied. She traveled first to Delhi to see the viceroy, and then later in the same year to Calcutta to meet him again. On every occasion she argued her own right to power within the state and the injustice of Siddiq Hasan's disgrace. She published a book‐length collection of documents, with spirited commentary demonstrating accomplishments on her side, machinations and insults on the other. She reprinted British expressions of admiration for Siddiq Hasan.102 She launched an extensive letter‐writing campaign to officials, including former viceroys.1030
Shah Jahan Begum soldiered on in her ruling activities. She disciplined her feelings, even in regard to Griffin, who remained in Central India until 1888. Through his intervention on behalf of his old friend G. W. Leitner, for example, in 1887 she rather remarkably provided the funds for the construction in Surrey of what would be Britain's first purpose‐built mosque as part of an Oriental Institute intended to foster sympathy for “the East.”104 An “orientalist” gem, the Woking mosque carries Shah Jahan's name to this day.
The aftermath of the affair did not serve Griffin well. Despite public praise, the viceroy himself had concluded that Griffin had exaggerated Siddiq Hasan's sedition and misgovernment. His successor in Central India faulted Griffin's reading of popular opinion about Siddiq Hasan, noting, for example, his well‐attended funeral and concluding, “we may have been seriously misled.” “Muhammadan opinion” supporting Siddiq Hasan may well have formed, he suggested, in the face of misguided official policy.105
Meanwhile, vernacular papers had a field day denouncing Griffin and were hardly silenced by his counterclaim that they were all in the pay of the now “ex‐nawab.”106 Nor did the publication of a lengthy unsigned article denouncing Siddiq Hasan in the London Times in late 1886 help. Since it leaked confidential official exchanges, the finger pointed to Griffin himself as the source of information intended to justify his actions in Bhopal.107
The Times article alleged not only sedition but seduction. Before their marriage, it claimed, Siddiq Hasan had seduced Shah Jahan and let a rumor get out that that “he had been a too successful lover” in order to force British support for the marriage. “The Begums were never famous for their domestic virtues,” the article continued, invoking in comparison “Queen Joan of Naples and the Czarina Catherine.” It went on to provide the alleged evidence for Siddiq Hasan's sedition that the case against him had in fact skirted, as well as the charges that actually were made against him for maladministration.108 The publication of this article was sufficient to produce both censure of Griffin from the viceroy and a private letter to Shah Jahan expressing outrage that a “lady of high descent like yourself” should have been so insulted.109 Griffin was unmoved and claimed that the effect of the article had been excellent.
Griffin meanwhile raged at the official failure to bring charges of libel on his behalf against the Calcutta newspapers. He had expected, he protested, to have the government's support given all he had done on its behalf, and he stormed that government silence was even more of an injury than the outrageous abuse he had been subject to.110 This confidential protest found its way into one of the leading Anglo‐Indian newspapers, the Pioneer of Allahabad. After a brief stint as Resident in Hyderabad in 1888, Griffin left India permanently to take up various business opportunities, publish widely on political affairs, and try unsuccessfully to enter Parliament. His obituary in the Times in 1908 noted that, given his brilliance, “it was always a matter of surprise to his friends that his career stopped where it did.”111
Siddiq Hasan, felled by vaguely described “dropsy,” had died in 1890. Shah Jahan Begum never reconciled with her family opponents and never gave up on seclusion or on demanding restitution of her now‐deceased husband's titles. After Siddiq Hasan's death, the viceroy finally agreed that the title “the late Nawab” could preface his name. Shah Jahan built her consort a marble tomb. The chronogram incised at the site erased all insult:
The end came to the great amir:
The world, at one, fell into grief;
Fate's pen inscribed upon his bier:
Heav'n's stronghold now his home to be.112
The story of the colonial‐era princes, precisely because of the rhetoric and staged performances of putative equality, throws into high relief colonialism's actual distribution of power.113 As Shah Jahan Begum learned, whatever the choreography of imperial ceremonies, when the hegemonic ax falls, as it did in Bhopal, even a Grand Commander of the Star of India is helpless.114 The position of the princes also, however, exemplifies colonialism's signal role in shaping a distinctive form of social inequality with policies that favored the princes as they did landed and other elites in British India. Shah Jahan Begum dressed, lived, and entertained royally, and she had vast resources to pour into her grand projects.
The Begum and her nawab consort had unusual opportunities for cultural experimentation and expression. They had wealth and status. They were also, as it happened, remarkably free of the family connections that constrain most people's lives. Shah Jahan ascended the throne without parents, brother, or even husband. Siddiq Hasan's father had been disinherited, and Siddiq himself was an immigrant in Bhopal. They were people on the margins of both Indian and colonial societies, yet, in theory, secure. From that position, and with her material resources, Shah Jahan Begum, from the varied possibilities open to her, pursued what were often Islamically inflected projects of self‐fashioning that in many ways served her well.
There were numerous cultural models in Shah Jahan's world for the very act of reinvention. Brahmin and Rajput women married into the lineage. A powerful family calling themselves French Bourbons became part of the political and social life of the court.115 In a different vein, Shah Jahan listened to the fabulous tales of imposture and disguise retold by poets and singers at the court.116 She herself tried out various roles for photography. When a military photographer, charged with capturing the “tribes and castes” of Central India, visited the court in the early 1860s, Sikandar, Shah Jahan, and Elizabeth de Bourbon compensated for the lack of cooperation elsewhere by simply dressing up for him in varied costumes—appearing, for example, as Hindu Marathas, wearing saris and with appropriate bindi on the forehead. Shah Jahan experimented with remarkably concrete ways of creating her place in the political and social world of her day—her flood of writing and publications, her building projects, her own embodied practice. Her life belies the stereotypes alike of the decadent, sycophantic colonial prince and the Islamic fundamentalist. She does not fit with what might even be the reader's image of a veiled Afghan woman.
Shah Jahan Begum remains a complex, intriguing figure: an observant Muslim woman who was a ruler; a reformer who—like many others in India at the time—fits uneasily into any simple category of progress or regress. Griffin took anyone engaged in any form of Islamic activism as a fanatic. Contemporary historians describe Shah Jahan's period as one of “Islamization.” Both that vague term and Griffin's simplistic fears miss the multifaceted dimensions and the novelty of the activities that Shah Jahan took on, as well as their effectiveness for her in the specific context of her time and place. Unlike Griffin, let us take for granted that she knew what she was doing.
Griffin, of course, had the upper hand. In the end, however, Shah Jahan Begum might well have felt that, for herself as for her consort, the words carved on his tomb had the last say: they both were glorious, they merited popular admiration and devotion, and they would, they believed, win divine reward. Shah Jahan Begum in her overall behavior serves us today as neither a “good” example nor a “cautionary” one—unless the caution is to watch out for people like Griffin who think they know what Islamic practices mean.
Barbara D. Metcalf was president of the American Historical Association in 2010. She is professor of history emerita, University of California, Davis, and from 2003 to 2009 was Alice Freeman Palmer Professor of History at the University of Michigan. She is the author of Islamic Revival in British India: Deoband, 1860–1900 (Princeton University Press, 1982) and, most recently, Husain Ahmad Madani: The Jihad for Islam and India's Freedom (Oneworld, 2009), and editor of Islam in South Asia in Practice (Princeton University Press, 2009).