Every day, Muslim Ahmad leaves his courtyard house in
the Khari Baoli mohalla, the neighborhood flanking Chandni Chowk, and
makes his way to the Fatehpuri Masjid for noon prayers. As the slight eighty-
five-year-old moves through the narrow lanes of this predominantly Hindu
section of Old Delhi, men, both young and old, stop to greet him with great
reverence. They touch their heads and hearts, prostrate themselves to touch
his feet, or simply hold their hands in a gesture of namaskar. “I am a very
respected man here,” Mr. Ahmad explains to me. After his prayers, he often
spends the afternoon sitting in the courtyard of the mosque speaking to
friends and neighbors who seek his council, his blessings, or simply conver-
sation. For those who come to pray here, the Mughal-era mosque would be
much like any other place of worship in contemporary Delhi were it not for
the connection to the past that Mr. Ahmad provides. His family has prayed at
the Fatehpuri Masjid for two centuries, and he might be the only person in the
community that can speak with authority of its history during the past one
hundred years. His erudition in this regard is not merely that of a longtime
worshipper but is based on a connection with the people and place that was
forged by his grandfather and father.
Mr. Ahmad’s grandfather was Deputy Nazir Ahmad (1836–1912), the social
reformer, best-selling Urdu novelist, and a close friend and supporter of Sir
Sayyid Ahmad Khan.1 Nazir Ahmad traveled with Sir Sayyid to speak to the
Indian Muslim community on the subjects of social uplift and educational
reform, and he is revered as an early advocate of women’s education and rights.
After his death, his son, Bashiruddin Ahmad Dehlavi (1861–1927), Mr. Ahmad’s
father, quit his post as deputy collector for the nizam of Hyderabad and
moved to Delhi to manage the family properties. The change in occupation
left him with a lot of free time. It was then, Mr. Ahmad explains, that Sir
Sayyid presented Athar al-sanadid to his father. He showed me the book and
the inscription inside that reads, “If there are any shortcomings with this
book, please complete it.” Dehlavi honored the request and wrote Vaqiat-i
darul-hakumat-i Dihli,2 a meticulously researched, three-volume exposition
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