Masjid Qasim Ali Khan is a historical monument in the city of Peshawar. Built at the end of the 17th century, this 350-year-old mosque is located near the Qissa Khwani Bazaar in the Old Town. The importance attached to the mosque is such that its khateeb [prayer leader] is considered the final authority of the city to announce the sighting of the moon.

A large population of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province has traditionally followed Masjid Qasim Ali Khan’s announcements to start fasting in the month of Ramazan and to celebrate Eid-ul-Fitr and Eid-ul-Azha. Perhaps this is the reason why in many previous years we have witnessed a controversy over moon watching between the current khateeb, Maulana Shahabuddin Popalzai, and the central Ruet-i-Hilal street. [moon sighting] Committee, established by the federal government to have a synchronized lunar calendar for observing religious occasions in Pakistan.

Another significance of Masjid Qasim Ali Khan is that one of the noblest and greatest freedom fighters of his time is buried on his expansive premises. Mufti-i-Azam [Grand Mufti] Maulana Abdur Rahim Popalzai II was born in Peshawar in 1890 to a family of religious scholars. He received his first education at home before being sent to Rampur, Delhi and Deoband for a specialization in Hadith and Fiqh [Islamic jurisprudence]. He was a student of Sheikh-ul-Hind Maulana Mahmudul Hasan.

Soon after, Maulana Popalzai began to turn to the anti-imperialist and anti-capitalist ideology professed by Maulana Obaidullah Sindhi and Maulana Hussain Ahmad Madani. From Maulana Hasrat Mohani to Maulana Sindhi to Maulana Madani, there was a strong tradition that had emerged among a section of Muslim religious scholars in British India, where Marxism was seen by them as a revolutionary tool in the modern world to accomplish the universal Islamic ideals they believed in: equality, brotherhood and social justice.

Maulana Popalzai was instrumental in organizing the Naujawan Bharat Sabha, a leftist-oriented youth organization. After being outlawed by the British, he became leader of the Socialist Party. He founded a religious seminary at Masjid Qasim Ali Khan, founded a group of Pakistani students and youth, edited newspapers in Urdu, and wrote poetry in Pashtun.

While on one side his fatwas [religious edicts] have been researched and followed by people across the province and beyond, on the other hand Maulana Popalzai has dedicated her life to mobilizing farmers and workers in different parts of the North West Frontier Province (NWFP) , now Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. He has been sentenced more than once to rigorous imprisonment for propagating his ideals of anti-imperialism and liberation of his country from British colonial rule.

However, what made Maulana Popalzai unique among the religious scholars of his time was the active leadership he provided in organizing a movement of sweepers and sanitation workers across his province. It was hard for anyone to believe that a Grand Mufti of Muslims would be dedicated to uplifting the most marginalized segment of the population, which belonged to the untouchable Hindu caste Shudhras, Balmikis and local Christians.

Popalzai’s grandson Dr Abdul Jaleel Popalzai chronicled the entire movement in Urdu in a book titled Achhut Khaakrob Mufti-i-Islam Ki Qayadat Mein [Untouchable Sweepers Under the Leadership of Mufti-i-Islam]. This book was published in 1994 by Al-Mahmood Academy, Urdu Bazaar, Lahore, to mark the 50th anniversary of the death of Maulana Popalzai. An interesting feature of the book is the provision of references from secret reports prepared by the police and intelligence services of the time on the activities of Maulana Popalzai and her followers.

Courtesy of my friend Aslam Khwaja in Karachi, I received a copy of the book recently, 27 years after its publication. But, as the saying goes, better late than never. I thought this was an important book to present to readers who are not familiar with the illustrious life and struggle of Maulana Popalzai. The book also helps us understand the cruelty and machinations inherent in colonial rule, giving other relevant examples to set the context for the sweeper movement.

Having earned the title of ‘Marxist Maulana’, it was only natural that Maulana Popalzai should be moved by the plight of the most invisible and speechless people around him: sweepers and sanitation workers. According to declassified official reports, it was in 1938 that Maulana Popalzai and her followers began working to organize a convention and a procession of sweepers from across the NWFP in Peshawar.

The movement started and Maulana Popalzai appointed her right-hand man, Muhammad Younus Qureshi, as the main organizer. In the following years, there were conferences, congresses, unions and unrest movements, organized by sweepers and sanitation workers across the province, from Bannu and Kolachi to Peshawar and Mardan. Their demands were highlighted and there was an ongoing engagement with the authorities for the realization of their rights.

After the first provincial conference in 1939, Qureshi was elected president of the sweepers union, with Vanjara and Daulat Ram as vice-presidents. Mr. Chatterjee was elected general secretary, with Sohan Lal, Boota Chaudhary, Dwarka Nath, Sadhu Singh and Achran Ram as cabinet members. Maulana Popalzai became their most notable voice, led their processions and chaired many sweeper conferences.

Due to recent political developments in Afghanistan and what we are seeing in Pakistan, especially Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, it is important to remind people of what Maulana Abdur Rahim Popalzai II and his ilk stood for. On the contrary, it has become all the more evident today to insist on telling such stories of the history of Pakhtun, when part of the powers that be in Pakistan insist on labeling all Pakhtuns as politically conservative since. always, and inherently introverted because of tribalism.

In addition to the politically secular Bacha Khan, who inspired the progressive Pakhtuns to aspire to freedom and dignity, there were also those purely Islamic scholars among the Pakhtuns who took a clearly inclusive and pro-people stance during the struggle for freedom in British India.

The writer is a poet and essayist. He recently edited Pakistan Here and Now: Insights into Society, Culture, Identity and Diaspora. His latest collection of verses is
No fortune to tell

Posted in Dawn, Books & Authors, October 3, 2021

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