Literally translating into ‘Heavenly Ornaments’, Maulana Thanvi’s ‘Bahishti Zewar’ is an instructional guidebook written in Northern India in the early 1900s. It codifies Islamic beliefs and practices, and serves as a comprehensive handbook of faith and ritual for a Muslim woman. The book, originally written in Urdu, has been translated into various languages and used by South Asians and South Asian diaspora for a long time. As common practice, many women were gifted a copy of the book on their wedding day so as to begin their initiation into womanhood and serve the purpose of their “social education”.

While one’s first instinct would be to dismiss it or label it prejudiced given its context (a privileged male writing social rules for women), one is taken by surprise on examining the contents. Translator Barbara Metcalf notes that “throughout the work, nothing is more striking than the extent to which the book takes women and men as essentially the same, in contrast to European works directed toward women at this time.”

The book gives detailed descriptions of everyday life in the privileged classes in North India and is an interesting source material to study Islamic social reform in the subcontinent. It is clear that Maulana Thanvi’s intent was to educate women and remove the ambiguity of hearsay when it came to rules and rights.

It also serves as an etiquette manual for the modern Muslim woman including guidelines on how to write letters (“khat likhne ka bayaan”) and address it to various people. It has a section on respect of elders, best practices on how to raise a child, deal with puberty, and socialize at parties (“mehfil”), among others. Instructions for following the righteous Islamic way are also broken down. You can refer to it lest you need to know how to perform ablutions, do charity in Ramadan, conduct the ritual slaughter on Eid, or even carry out proceedings of a marriage. And in case you were looking to pick up some handy tips, the book is abundantly stocked with manuals for everyday skills and home-remedies; these range from from cures to minor ailments, instructions on making soap, ink and tobacco, to embroidery patterns and block printing on fabric.

Our favourite, however, is a poem at the very beginning of the book, which we have translated below:

 

Jewels of Humanity

 

A girl asked this to her mother dear,

Tell me about jewels Ama, I am ignorant here.

 Tell me what jewels are precious amongst these,

And which of these would be hideous, tell me please.

 So I have the privilege to distinguish between the bad and the good,

And be bestowed with the secrets of your abundance, I should 

The mother, with love, said to her daughter dear,

Listen carefully to what I say, with an open heart you hear.

The jewels of wire and gold are said to be precious,

But don’t, my life, ever get too enamored, be conscious.

 The glistening of gold and silver is no good really,

Like four days of moonlit night and after darkness is all you see.

For you, you must covet adornments such,

That benefit the faith and humanity much.

 On your forehead, wear the jhoomar of intelligence, young one

It is through it that all humans’ functions and worlds run,

 The earrings on you in them should be wisdom,

So that advice worth lakhs into your ears they hum.

 The voice of the advisor, or tips for matters of the heart,

If you apply these, may fate be your friend from the start.

 Heavy earrings give ears nothing but trouble and pain,

Keep faith in your ears, from books you will gain,

 And if by desire for a neckpiece you are torn,

String your kindness around, use it to adorn.

 May the strength of your arms be your bracelet,

May success upon success, you constantly beget

 All those adornments of the arms, they are useless really,

For us, your bare arms our daughter are the care necessary.

More beautiful than these adornments is the craft of the hands,

Craftsmanship is a talent envied across lands

What will you do, my life, with these anklets you are in,

They should be thrown, daughter, they are nothing but din.

The best adornment for feet, is enlightened foresight,

Stay steadfast, time after time, on the path of right.

If you lack the adornments of wire and gold on your feet, worry not my heart,

Be careful, so you may not falter from your path.

 

 Asli insaani zewar

 

Ek ladki ne yeh poocha apni ama jaan se

Aap zewar ki karein tareef mujh anjaan se

 Kaun se zewar hain ache ye jata dijye mujhe

Aur jo bad zeb hai wo bhi bata dijiye mujhe

 Taaki ache aur bure mein mujh ko bhi ho imtiyaz

Aur mujh par aap ki barkat ka khul jaaye ye raaz

 Yun kahan amma ne muhabbat se ki aye beti meri

Goshe dil se baat sun lo zewaron ki tum zari

 Seem wazr ke zewaron ko log kehte hain bhala

Par na meri jaan hona tum kabhi in par fida

 Sone chandi ki chamak bas dekhne ki baat hai

Char din ki chandni aur phir andheri raat hai

 Tum ko lazim hai karo margoob aise zewrat

Din o duniya ko bhalai jis se ae jaan aai haath

Sar pe jhoomar aqal ka rakhna tum ae beti modaam

Chalte hain jiske zariye se hi sab insaan ke kaam

Baalian hon kaam mein ae jaan gosh hosh ki

Aur nasihat lakh tere jhumkon mein ho bhari

Aur aaweze nasayih hoon ki dil aawez hon

Gar kare in par amal tere nasebe tez hon

Kaan ke patte diya karte hain kaanon ko azaab

Kaan mein rakho nasihat deen jo auraq e kitab

Aur zewar gar galle ke kuch tujhe darkaan hon

Nekiyan pyaari meri terey gale ka haar hoon

Quwat e baazu ka haasil tujh ko baazu band ho

Kaamyaabi se sada tu kharam o kharsand ho

Hain jo sab baazoo ke zewar sab ke sab bekaar hain

Hamein baazo ki ae beti teri darkaaar hai

Haath ke zewar se pyaari dastkaari khoob hai

Dastkaari wo hunar hai sab ko jo marghoob hai

Kya karogi ae meri jaan zewar khalkhaal ko

Phenk dena chahiye beti bas is janjaal ko

Sab se acha paaon ka zewar ye hai noor basr

Tum raho sabit qadam kar waqt kar waqt rahe naik par

Seem o zar ka paon mein zewar na ho toh dar nahi

Raasti se paaon phisle gar na meri jaan kahin

Buy a copy of Metcalf’s translation here and a find a free PDF of the book in English here. If you’d like to venture into reading the original Urdu, you’ll be surprised to know that there are many apps for it: Click here.

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