Atiya Fyzee

in homistan| univerCity

I have been doing some translation work on Shibli Naumani for a small project. He was a major historian of early Islam who published seminal works in the early 20th century. He was also a committed reformist who wanted to modernize “Muslim” education. But reading around on him, I got to read his letters to Atiya Fyzee. That is her in the photo above, seated center. It is taken from a work of musicology that came out in 1925, The Music of India.

The daughter of Haji Hasan Ali Afandi, she was born in Istanbul in 1876 (d. 1967) and was the first Muslim woman to go to London for higher education, to pen a travelogue/memoir of her time abroad, to forcefully advocate for gender equality, to write on musicology, to become a muse for Shibli and for Iqbal. She is now largely forgotten (and mis-remembered since that article confuses her with her sister. Delacy in the comments!).

In 1906, Atiya Fyzee left her home city of Bombay to spend a year studying at a teacher’s training college in London. She was certainly not the first Muslim woman to travel to Britain, but she certainly was the first to have penned her observations of Europe. Her travelogue (Roznamchah) was firstly serialized in the Urdu women’s journal, Tahzib un-Niswan from Lahore, then published in book form under the title Zamana-i-tahsil [A Time of Education] in 1921.

That remarkable journal is now translated into English by our very own Sunil Sharma and Siobhan Lambert-Hurley as Atiya’s Journeys: A Muslim Woman from Colonial Bombay to Edwardian Britain.

They are also interviewed by WSJ here:

IRT: As historians, what brought each of you to her?

Lambert-Hurley: Atiya was an extremely fiery, colorful and accomplished woman—all characteristics that make her a very attractive subject for the feminist historian! Until the final years of her life, she was also relentlessly itinerant, traveling on numerous occasions to and across three continents—Asia, Europe and the Americas. This peripatetic quality made Atiya especially interesting to me, first of all, as a scholar interested in travel and travel literature as a means of recovering the Muslim female as an actor in world history.

Sharma: As a literary historian, I was drawn by Atiya the muse who figured in the lives of two prominent figures of Persian and Urdu literature. She inspired the venerable Maulana Shibli Numani to write numerous ghazals (ballads) in Persian that included a veiled reference to her. Iqbal, who is thought to have been besotted with her, also wrote a lyrical poem inspired by her. Their letters to her—her letters to them do not survive or have not been made public—are amazing documents in the history of friendship.


Needless to say, I have been waiting for this translation to come out for a few years and now cannot wait to have my copy. Also, now maybe we can request Prof. Sharma to return to the eleventh to the fourteenth century where we really, really need him.

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