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Momin Khan Momin: The Court Intellectual without a payroll

Updated: Mar 22

Momin Khan Momin; often regarded as one of the greats of Urdu poetry and a contemporary of Ghalib was born in 1801 in Delhi. Originally from Kashmir, he belonged to a family of physicians in Unani medicine. Momin’s access to the Mughal court came through his grandfather and father; Hakim Nadir Khan and Hakim Ghulam Nabi Khan, who were very popular for their work in medicine, and hence were appointed as the royal physicians and were given the position of nobles. Momin’s family resided in Chelon Ka Koocha, which was a predominantly posh locality of Shahjahanabad. Momin’s father had set up his clinic near the Madarsa of Shah Abdul Aziz, who was a reformed belonging to the Naqshbandi Sufi order. Momin’s primary education was carried out in the Madarsa of Shah Abdul Aziz only, and later he went on to study under Shah Abdul Qadir, who was also a descendant of Shah Waliullah; similar to Shah Abdul Aziz, who was Shah Waliullah’s son. Under Shah Abdul Qadir, Momin learned Arabic and Persian along with acquiring the knowledge of Tibb (Unani Medicine) through his father and grandfather over the years. Momin’s knowledge of Arabic and Persian helped him understand the textbooks of medicine. Momin’s uncle Ghulam Haider Khan, played a crucial role in his training as a physician, as under his supervision, Momin started writing prescriptions in his father’s clinic. Under his uncle, he achieved perfection in his work and also gained knowledge of astronomy, which later became one of his major interests.

Apart from being a physician, Momin had an exceptional command of poetry; which eventually helped him get entry into the royal Mughal court. For Momin, poetry was not a job or an occupation, rather it was for his pleasure and the love of art and literature. Momin preferred to earn a livelihood through his knowledge of Tibb and often avoided serving the nobles and the court, which made him starkly different from Ghalib and Zauq, who used to expect rewards from the court. Another source of income for him was the annual pension that his family received. Records tell us that his family received an annual of 1000 Rupees which had sustained the family throughout.

In 1824, when the Delhi College was established and a Persian teacher was required, Momin was approached to teach. But Momin outrightly asked for a salary of hundred rupees a month, when the institution was only offering a meager salary of 40 rupees a month. Maulvi Abdul Haq, a scholar, and a linguist, also known as Baba-e-Urdu, has written about how British Lt. Governor Thomson, came for an inspection of the Delhi college. Upon inspecting the institution, Thomson realized that the college lacked a good Persian teacher. Since Persian was still a widely prevalent language and was often used in official documents, a qualified teacher was required who had knowledge of Persian and knew basic English; as the teacher, in that case, could also be helpful to the British. This is when Sadruddin Khan Azurda Dehlvi also known as the Grand Mufti, who worked extensively during the 1857 rebellion, suggested the names of 3 intellectuals: Mirza Ghalib, Momin Khan Momin, and Imam Baksh Sahbai. All 3 of them were renowned poets, including Sadruddin Khan who was also a student of Shah Abdul Aziz, similar to Momin. The offer was presented to all three of these poets; Mirza Ghalib outrightly refused the offer, as he believed that becoming a teacher at an institution would make him a prisoner of the system and he would feel bound; Momin Khan Momin asked for a higher salary of hundred rupees per month and hence Imam Baksh was appointed as the teacher.

Momin Khan Momin never looked for employment or even ways to earn money, which makes him starkly different from his contemporaries. He was always satisfied with what he made and he could make a survival through the pension he received. Momin was perhaps a polymath, with interests ranging from chess to poetry to astronomy. He maintained cordial relationships with the nobles at court and never expected anything in return; even at a time when every artist was keen on getting entry into the royal fort. The 19th century was a period of cultural renaissance in Delhi, with kings patronizing artists even at a time when power was weaning away. The court had become a cultural hub, for intellectuals to come and perform at mushairas, as poetry sessions were held with Mehfils being organized almost every night. Momin was regularly invited to the mushairas and mehfils and he even used to participate in them by reciting a few qasidas and indulging in intellectual discourse, without expecting anything in return as opposed to other artists and intellectuals. This made him a court intellectual without being on the Badshah’s payroll.

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