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Mr. Jinnah Marries Ruttie

Sheela Reddy’s account of the Quaid and his wife’s wedding sheds light on Jinnah’s adherence to his faith

by Khaled Ahmed

Sheela Reddy, in her book Mr. and Mrs. Jinnah: The Marriage that Shook India (Penguin 2017), describes the famous wedding of Pakistan’s founder in-depth.

It was 1918 when a 42-year-old Muhammad Ali Jinnah married an 18-year-old Parsi girl, Ruttanbai Petit, alias Ruttie, in Mumbai. Jinnah’s own attitude to religion was not as casual and uncomplicated as his bride’s. He was not a believer in the orthodox sense and had always remained above sectarian prejudices but he certainly did not belong to that class of the English-educated who were raised like European children, taught by European governesses and tutors to disdain Indian culture and religion. As long as he was alive, he was devoted to his mother, a deeply devout Muslim, if not in the purely Islamic way approved by the orthodox. Even his father, Jinnahbhai, who was raised as an Ismaili to be half-Hindu in his customs and beliefs, had turned pronouncedly Muslim after his migration to Karachi.

Jinnahbhai refused to give his children Hindu names or ceremonies, according to the Ismaili custom back home, and gave them daily lessons in the Quran while they were still young. While never overtly religious like his sisters, especially Fatima, Jinnah had a thorough knowledge of the Quran, having always personally followed a rational, dispassionate interest in Islam, reading a biography in English of Islam’s Prophet while he was in England preparing for his Bar examinations. He also embarked on a study of Islamic jurisprudence while still a law student, supposedly because it could come in handy for his future law career whenever he returned to India. After his return, too, Jinnah’s religious sentiments could only be described as mixed.

Retreat from tradition

Fastidious about being associated with Muslim backwardness and their many taboos and orthodoxy and superstitions, he refused to sport the outward identity of a Muslim, abjuring the round turban, spade beard and black gown that even educated and influential Muslim leaders clung to. According to Reddy’s somewhat-contested account, he not only defiantly dressed like a British gentleman but openly smoked, drank, ate pork and, more seriously, insisted on putting his sister into a convent boarding school in the teeth of stiff opposition from his own Khoja community. But he did not wish to turn his back entirely on his Muslim identity, carefully inventing himself as a different kind of Muslim—one who did not go to a mosque to pray but still belonged to the community.

It was as part of this reinvention that Jinnah joined a reformist Muslim organization called the Khoja Shia Isnashari Jamaat that was started the at beginning of the 20th century by a few Khojas anxious to be in the mainstream and to be seen as a more modern and progressive Islamic faith. Jinnah wasted no time joining this new organization with its own mosques, madrassas and imambaras to distinguish them from the Ismailis, resulting, according to some biographers, in the rejection of a marriage proposal that his father sent on his behalf soon after Jinnah’s return from England as a qualified barrister.

Rational Muslim

Overtly, his interest in Islam was purely legal and rational. When he joined the Imperial Legislative Council, for example, he took it upon himself to draft the first Muslim Wakf Bill, spending years reading and talking to Islamic experts to gain the thorough understanding of Islamic law he required to draft the bill. And yet, whatever Ruttie may have concluded from his Anglicized appearance and habits, her conversion to Islam was more important to him than merely a quick way of getting around the law. He was already fighting a stiff battle with Muslim rivals who insisted on calling him a kafir, a non-believer, and now by marrying a kafira, the knives would be out again. He needed to find the right man to do the conversion, someone who could ensure that it would be socially binding and stand up to his critics’ scrutiny not only for now, but in the years to come.

He did not have to look too far. Maulana Nazir Ahmad Khujandi was not only a renowned religious scholar of the majority Sunni sect, a presiding imam of Bombay’s Jama Masjid, but also a member of the Muslim League. As his leader, Jinnah could expect the moulvi to accommodate him in any way possible as well as keep the conversion secret at least until the wedding announcement was made. The date for the conversion, Thursday, April 18, was carefully chosen not because it was the anniversary of the Ajmeri Sufi saint Khwaja Moinuddin Chishti and was considered one of the holiest days in the Muslim calendar, as his Pakistani biographers conjecture, but because it was the most sensible way of holding his tightly plotted wedding-plan together.

Ruttie in the mosque

It gave just enough time not to crowd up the wedding day, but not enough time for the secret to leak out. All Ruttie had to do was walk into the Jama Masjid the previous day, accompanied by Jinnah’s then trusted lieutenant, Umar Sobhani. No woman, veiled or unveiled, had probably stepped into the mosque before, but she was Jinnah’s bride-to-be and therefore an exception. The ritual of conversion could not have taken very long with her going through the prayers that she made no pretense of memorizing beforehand. She would have been back in Petit Hall well in time for dinner. The day of her conversion, incidentally, was also the Parsi festival day, Aban Jasan, dedicated to the angel who presides over the sea, when Parsis approach the sea to offer prayers with coconuts and flowers. It follows the day after the most sacred day in the Parsi calendar, Adar Jasan, the ninth day of the ninth month, when every devout Parsi visits a fire temple. It was an irony that was lost on both of them.

But what was not lost on Jinnah was the opportunity that the three public holidays in a row—Wednesday and Thursday for the two Parsi rivals, followed by Hindu Ram Navami on Friday provided him, especially as these were followed by the weekend. He was far too smart a strategist to miss such a rare advantage he suddenly held over Sir Dinshaw.

The worried father

The high court was already closed for the summer, but Sir Dinshaw had not relaxed his vigil, putting off his summer plans to keep guard over his daughter. But now, even were he to discover their plans and go after them, he would find his hands tied till the following Monday, when the police courts reopened. By then they would have safely escaped to an undisclosed destination that Jinnah had arranged for them, but confided to no one. What is more, he could even think of sending out a press release announcing his wedding—giving the impression that it was conducted quietly but openly in the public eye and that there had been nothing clandestine about it whatsoever, knowing that by the time the newspapers came out, it would be too late to do anything about it.

The wedding ceremony itself couldn’t have been more primly respectable. For Ruttie, accustomed to Parsi weddings with an open courtyard where white-robed priests performed a picturesque ceremony while guests feasted in the surrounding galleries, it must have seemed a poor show. Since neither the bride nor the bridegroom could recite the Arabic words of the nikah, others were deputed to do for them. The moulvi gave a brief discourse praising Allah for his wisdom and recited three verses from the Quran that neither could follow. There was some discussion on her mehr, or dowry, and then signing in a register, and it was over. It had lasted an hour, from seven to eight in the evening. The only memorable moment was when the bridegroom had to place a ring on his bride’s finger and discovered that, with so much on his mind, he had forgotten to buy one.

The Raja to the rescue

But the chief wedding guest, the Raja of Mahmudabad, an old friend and admirer of Jinnah’s, came to the rescue, pulling a diamond ring off his own finger. The marriage, according to Mahmudabad’s son, was performed according to Shia rites, and a certain Maulana Mohammad Hasan Najafi was deputed as Ruttie’s representative, signing the nikah document on her behalf, while Shariat Madar Haji Mohammad Abdul Hashim Najafi signed on behalf of the bridegroom. The attorneys and witnesses included Shareef Dewji, Umar Sobhani and the Raja of Mahmudabad. The wedding document was written in Persian, and the serial number in the nikah register was 118.37. According to the nikah document, the mehr was settled at Rs. 1,001. But quite apart from the mehr, Jinnah presented Ruttie with Rs. 125,000 as a gift. This was almost as much as what his Highness, the Raja of Rajpipli, had just contributed to the War. However, the sheer magnificence of the sum was totally lost on Ruttie, who had a fuzzy head for figures and had never personally handled cash before.

If refreshments were served after the ceremony, local newspapers, usually fond of dwelling on such details, did not mention it. The newlyweds, at any rate, would have been in a rush to get out of Bombay before a storm broke. Not that the prospect of it ruffled Jinnah’s usual calm—he stopped long enough in his office at the bungalow to sign a letter requisitioning a public meeting three days after to be addressed by Gandhi. Jinnah, of course, would not be there to address the meeting according to the original program, but he was too meticulous to leave without attending to this last detail. Apparently, even with Ruttie finally by his side, it was politics that continued to be topmost in his mind.

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