A Most Noble Life is the extraordinary story of Ashrafunnisa Begum, who was born in an obscure village in Bijnor, Uttar Pradesh, taught herself to read and write, in secret, against the wishes of her elders and prevailing norms, and went on to teach and inspire generations of young girls at the Victoria Girls’ School—the first school for girls in Lahore. Her unusual life was written about with great poignancy by Muhammadi Begum—the first woman to edit a journal in Urdu, and a prolific writer of fiction and poetry for adults and children, and instructional books for women during her brief life. She aptly titled the biography Hayat-e Ashraf: it echoes the name of her subject, but also means ‘the noblest life’.
The two women, who met by chance at a wedding, instantly developed a strong mutual affinity, which grew into a lifelong bond. In Ashrafunnisa Begum, Muhammadi Begum saw not only the mother she had lost as a child, but also an inspiring role model who had led a principled life of her own making, and shown amazing grace and strength against grave odds.
This is the first complete English translation of Hayat-e Ashraf (1904). The translator, a longtime scholar of Urdu literature and culture, also provides the first detailed study of the life and works of its author, Muhammadi Begum, and highlights in an ‘Afterword’ two key social issues of the time, women’s literacy and widow remarriage, which remain as relevant today.
An absorbing narrative, observant, witty and poignant, lovingly translated and annotated by C. M. Naim, it affords us precious and candid glimpses of ordinary Muslim women in the nineteenth century who, unknown to themselves, led less than ordinary lives.
Ashrafunnisa Begum (1840–1903) was born in a conservative Muslim household in an obscure village in Bijnor district. Despite many odds, she ingeniously taught herself to read and write and Urdu. These skills served her and her two daughters well when she became a young widow in Lahore. Taking up employment in the Victoria Girls’ School, she devoted her life to teaching those skills to several generations of girls, who long remembered their beloved Ustani Sahiba.
Muhammadi Begum (1877–1908) was the first Muslim woman to edit a journal in Urdu. The weekly, Tahzib-e Niswañ, that she founded in 1898 with her publisher husband, Syed Mumtaz Ali, continued for five decades, and created a remarkable network of female friendship and cooperation across North India. Besides writing extensively for the magazine, she also published novels, children’s books, collections of poems, and a dozen or so books on contemporary domestic and social issues that were of direct relevance to her peers.
C. M. Naim is Professor Emeritus in the Department of South Asian Languages and Civilizations, University of Chicago, where he taught for forty years. He founded and edited the Annual of Urdu Studies from 1981 to 1991. His extensively revised translation of the autobiography of the famous Urdu poet Mir was published as Remembrances in 2019 in the Murti Classical Library of India. He is presently finishing a book on the first sixty years of Urdu crime fiction.
List of Images
A Most Noble Life by Muhammadi Begum
Three Essays by Ashrafunnisa Begum
The Evils of Pampering
On Adopting a Child
Three Essays on Victoria Girls’ School, Lahore
Victoria Girls’ School, Lahore
A Visit to the Victoria Girls’ School
A Special Event at the Victoria Girls’ School