How an accidentally distorted drawing of the Prophet led to a riot in 19th-century Mumbai

The image, published with a biography of the Prophet in a Gujarati magazine, led to Muslim and Parsi clashes for a month in 1851.

Article by Mridula Chari | Scroll.in

On a Friday towards the end of 1851, an unidentified person pasted a copy of a Gujarati article on the wall of the Jama Masjid in southern Mumbai. People leaving the mosque after namaz, saw it and were enraged.

That day, Mumbai’s second major riot began. (The first, by Parsis, was a protest in 1832 against dogs being killed by city officials.)

The article in question came from the September 23 edition of a Gujarati magazine called Chitra Dynana Darpan. The magazine, edited by Byramji Cursetji, a Parsi, ran a profile of Prophet Mohammed as one of its regular accounts of eminent personalities of the world, who included people such as Plato, Confucius, George Washington and Jamshetji Jeejeebhoy.

The profile itself was an unobjectionable retelling of the events of his life, apart from one sniping line at the beginning which reads: “No other person has so much altered the affairs of the world, or destroyed the lives and property, and led them to believe as Mahomed has done.”

Primitive technology

Nothing might have come of this had the magazine not also published an image of the prophet with a blemish over one of his eyes making him look disfigured. The magazine editor would later claim that errors such as this frequently happened with their primitive lithographic printer and that they meant no offence.

Three weeks later, on October 17, the article with the image was pasted on the Jama Masjid, leading to riots that lasted for a month.

Parsis driving horse carriages were beaten up as they passed through Muslim areas in the city. Even their passengers, who were often of different religions, did not pass unscathed. Muslim mobs wandered the streets with clubs in their hands, liquor shops were looted, Zoroastrian fire temples sacked, jewellery stolen and at least one Parsi died in this violence.

As the situation deteriorated, the government called in the army, increased police patrols across the city and posted notices asking right minded people to help maintain civil calm, but to not much effect.

In the reported reasons for the riot, Muslims did not take offence as much at the printing of the image as at its allegedly wilful distortion. Over that month, the original cause for offence got obscured and people who had not read the article claimed it was entirely denigrating to the Prophet.

One group of Muslims did not participate in the riots: the Moguls, as immigrants to the city from the Persian Empire were called. The Persian consulate in Mumbai issued a stern warning to them not to join the rioters, under threat of expulsion from the city.]

Peace deal brokered

Peace was finally restored a month later. In a meeting between members of both communities on November 24 that year, Cursetji issued a clarification.

“We stated several times that the likeness of Huzrut Mohammed […] were not intended by us to hurt the feelings of the Mahomedans; but still we find that they consider we published the likeness and account to offend their feelings,” he wrote. “We therefore beg to state again for the satisfaction of all, that we considered, and do still consider, Huzrut Mahomed to be one of the most remarkable persons that ever lived […] and the likeness we published was copied from the work of Simon Ockley.”

The Kazi of Bombay and the merchant Sir Jamsetjee Jeejeebhoy, accompanied by other Parsis and Muslims sharing carriages then drove through Muslim mohallas in the city together to demonstrate for good that the two communities could be at peace again.

But proving that Mumbaikars have always been concerned about the bottom line, an annoyed witness during the riot wrote to a local paper saying, “This is the boasted order and quiet of Bombay, the inhabitants of which pay, goodness knows, how many thousand rupees a year for their Police.”