While Taj Mahal may be the edifice of the moment, caught in the eye of a political storm and being showered with both barbs and bouquets, not very far from it is a museum of Muslim ‘tehzeeb’ that brims with tales of nobility and sophistication. Housed in the Ibn Sina Academy, Aligarh, the museum is one man’s effort to preserve articles of Muslim lifestyle or tehzeeb that include textiles, crockery, manuscripts, and musical instruments among other things.
The academy is primarily a museum of Medieval Medicine and Sciences, founded by Padma Shri Hakim Syed Zillur Rehman in the year 2000, but soon it diversified into chronicling Muslim lifestyle and tehzeeb of the past. People wonder why a science museum would be generous enough to grow into accommodating the articles of Muslim lifestyle. And he answers all of the queries with a note of hope and love for future, “I have the articles of Muslim houses preserved in the cupboards of my museum, from the royal families of Bhopal, Hyderabad, and Rampur etc.”
He said that he is preserving all this for posterity – “After acquiring education, prosperity and wealth there will be a time when they would want to know their civilizational facts, culture and past and at that time my museum will give the future generation a glimpse into their tehzeeb and lifestyle. It will respond to their search for roots.”
There are almost 4,500 articles of Muslim tehzeeb showcased in his museum – which include crockery that keeps the food warm till the last bite because of the vacuum that takes hot water, there are dupattas three meter long that were tied differently in different Muslim societies of Hyderabad and Bhopal etc., there is a fruit tray from the dining table of Begum Sultan Jahan of Bhopal, her brooch made of precious stones, with her name inscribed in gold, a chogha that belonged to the Qazi Shamsuddin of Rewari, dating back to 1830, a paandaan weighing over 5 kg and a betel stand to name a few.
There are other items that chronicle Muslim culture through objects like: gramophones, harmoniums, costumes for weddings and trays for biryanis designed keeping the sense of style and comfort of those times. There are heavy paandaan (a box for preserving items used to make paan), ugaldaan (spittoon for the pan user), fancy haath ka pankha (a hand fan), and pretty batua (wallet), gem-studded gharara (a dress item), there are also silver-lined razais (quilts). The museum grew out of his fondness for all things with rich history, some of which were also priceless - coins from ancient times, stamps, pens and other artefacts. He makes sure to mention the source of the specimens he gets from Muslim families and pin them in the cupboard with the name of the person donating it or belonging to.
Times for Muslims have also changed in many ways, he said, “Somehow they are not able to think beyond maqbara, masjid and madarsa. They are always ready to contribute in the growth of masjid and madarsa but don’t understand the values of museum of heritage and culture of Muslim families. In this time of collective ignorance about out past I designing this for the future generation that will come in search for roots,” he added. Some of the objects on display were inherited by him. Some were gifted by people who saw that he had the wherewithal to preserve priceless items for posterity.
He takes pride in showing the guests original royal orders of Mughal emperors that have come to Rehman from his father, and a paper weight made of shells that was used by Sir Syed Ahmad Khan. These orders come from Aurangzeb, Babur and calligraphy by Bahadur Shah Zafar. When asked how he continues to enrich the museum of Muslim past in times of attack on Taj Mahal, he said, “The attacks on Taj Mahal or anything associated with our past are just seasonal things, it is more to do with politics than our society and its commitment to celebrate history.”
In his view these attacks don’t mean anything in the larger picture of history, “Taj Mahal and Qutub Minar are part of our pride, we cannot be attacking them because they were made in medieval times. By that logic Connaught Place and Parliament should also be broken down because they were made angrez (British),” he added.
Rahman served as a professor and chairman, department of Ilmul Advia at the Ajmal Khan Tibbiya College, Aligarh Muslim University. After serving as a dean, faculty of Unani medicine, he retired after 40 years. He is the author of 45 books and several papers on different aspects of Unani and boasts of being the possessor of the largest collection of books on Unani medicine. Conferred the Padma Shri in 2006 for his contribution in the field of Unani medicine he is now expanding his museums to start taking items like animal skin, which formed an important part of households of the past.
Also, unsure of who will take it forward after him, Rahman has given this endeavor to a Trust to take charge of it. There is huge collection of Ghalib’s work, which he claims to be one of the largest in South Asia and attracts scholars from other parts of the country to study. In his library lined with thousands of books, manuscripts and dedicated works of Ibn Sina and medieval medicine, sciences, youngsters from all backgrounds especially economically weaker come to study in the quiet atmosphere.
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