Syed Ismail Hossain Siraji (1880–1931) is one of the pioneers of the Muslim Renaissance in the subcontinent. He was born in an illustrious Muslim family at Sirajganj town in the then Pabna district in 1880 and also died in the same place in 1931. Poet Nazrul, born 19 years after his birth was greatly inspired by his speech and the books he published at that time, most of which were anti-British and caused Siraji to suffer much at the hand of the British who imprisoned him and then confiscated his book Anal Probaho (Waves of Fire). He was an activist and worked for many parties and organizations. These included: Indian National Congress, Muslim League, Anjuman-i-Ulamah-i-Bangala, Jamiat Ulema-e-Hind, Swarajya Party and Krishak Samiti.
Siraji worked for the emancipation of the Muslims during the British rule in order to regain the lost heritage. As the Muslims were lagging behind the Hindus in regard to the learning of English language and thereby losing facilities of job markets and other facilities from the British, he inspired them to learn English and also to set their work-positions in accordance with their capabilities and talent. He did it because he wanted to bring about a change in the Muslim community who did not adopt themselves in the English education system and thereby were denied some crucial civil rights. It did not mean that he was with the British and supported their exploitation of the county, he was rather of the opinion that learning about English and the English education system would actually help them understand their politico-economic position in the society and accordingly, they would be able to organize themselves against the British.
Ismail Hossain Siraji was a writer, orator and peasant leader who called for many communal movements against the British. He suffixed the term Siraji with his name for his love of the place where he was born. Siraji, though extremely bright, could not prosecute his higher studies in the college because of financial stringency, but this could not deter him from growing into a knowledgeable and enlightened person. In his young age, he learnt Persian in school and also studied Sanskrit privately and was quite well versed in Sanskrit grammar and literature. He also studied Hindu scriptures like Vedas, Manusmriti, and Upanishads. And right here, we find some points of similarity he shares with Nazrul himself. Nazrul studied Hindu scriptures, learnt Shyama and Kirtan sangeet (music), composed poems on Hindu myths as well. Both Siraji and Nazrul were chief exponents of Hindu-Muslim unity. Nazrul joined British army because of poverty and organized the Indians against the British, many of whom later on joined the Azad Hind Fauz of Netaji Shubhas Chandra Bose. Siraji, too, joined the Khilaphat Movement to fight against the British. He went to Turkey with a medical mission when Turkey was involved in the Balkan Wars in 1912.
Siraji was one of the most prominent figures in the Bengali Muslim reawakening in the British India. He encouraged Muslims to learn English and to go for higher education to regain their position equally with the Hindus. He also worked for women to undertake English education, believing that this would help strengthen their socio-economic position in the society.
Siraji believed in religious tolerance between Hindus and Muslims who used to live side by side for generations together. He also thought that Hindu-Muslim unity would be of utmost need to create a strong Bengali society to fight against the tyranny and oppression of the British. His writings inspired many nationalists and revolutionaries. The name of Syed Ismail Hossain Siraji is thus specially remembered for all his efforts to the cause of the Muslims and none had suffered like him in the hands of the British for securing the rights of the Muslims in Bengal.
In the same strain, he inspired Kazi Nazrul during his life and his son Syed Asaduddowla Siraji accorded him one of the biggest receptions in Bengal at Sirajganj, Pabna. He organized an 'All Bengal Conference of Muslim Youths' under the name 'Bangiyo Muslim Tarun Sammelon' at the Theatre House in Sirajganj town on November 5-6,1932, one year after the death of Ismail Hossain Siraji. Syed Asaduddowla Siraji personally went to Kolkata to invite Kazi Nazrul Islam to attend the program at Sirajganj as the Chief Guest. Eminent folk singers like Abbasuddin, Sufi Zulfiqar Haider and Giashuddin Ahmad of Mymensingh accompanied Nazrul to the conference. Here the Rebel Poet Kazi Nazrul Islam delivered his most memorable and greatest Presidential speech addressing the youths of Bengal. The speech was afterwards published in The Saugath, edited by Nasiruddin in its 1339 edition as "Jauboner Daak." It was later published in many journals as "Taruner Swapno." On the concluding day, Nazrul visited the residence and also the grave of Ismail Siraji himself, while paying his deep respect and homage to him.
Here, I cannot help quoting from a poem written by Ismail Hossain Siraji, a piece that successfully caught the attention of all freedom loving men in Bengal:
The Land of My Birth
- Ismail Hossain Siraji
May he be the most wise and the top-wealthy,
May he enjoy the super-power, limitless
Let his magnanimity be equal of the unfathomable Indus, great
May his Talent glitter unhindered
No matter if he lives majestically in his mansion
May he stay meticulously dressed amidst glamorous jewelry
May his beauty be shining as that of the Moon
And heroism no less than Rustom
Tens of hundreds kiss his feet as slaves
And be flattered with songs in praise of him
But he who never did anything good for his motherland
Or worked little for his community
Tell that scoundrel as quick as possible
He is condemned as heartless, savage, base.
(Translation: Anwarul Karim)
This sample piece reflects Siraji's great patriotism and utmost love for his country, Bengal. He paid great tributes not only to his homeland but also criticized those who betrayed their Motherland. He was not at all hesitant to condemn boldly those who took pride in having power and position, name/fame or wealth in the society and never did anything worthwhile for the community. The prolific writer also wrote in many contemporary journals such as, Al-Eslam, Islam Pracharak, Prabasi, Pracharak, Kohinoor, Soltan, Mohammadi, Saogat, Nabajug and Nabanur. Most of his writings tended to glorify Islamic traditions, culture and heritage. His books of verses include Anal Prabaha (1900), Akangkha (1906), Uchchhas (1907), Udbodhan (1907), Naba Uddipana (1907), Spain Bijoy Kabya (1914), Sangit Sanjibani (1916), Premanjali (1916) and some of his notable novels, Ray Nandini (1915), Tara Bai (1916), Feroza Begum (1918), and Nooruddin (1919).
It was indeed very much surprising that with his limited education, Siraji could produce such great works of art including poetry, prose, novels, travelogues, and essays. During the British rule, the Muslims were most often ignored and occasionally looked down upon, but the works of Siraji, along with the great ones of Nazrul, proved beyond doubt that a great writer may arise from any background. In fact, his Anal Probaha was the first collection of poems which encapsulated the feelings and sentiments of the tormented people of the region in verse and ended with a hopeful note for the emancipation of the Muslims as a nation. We remember this great man today with utmost respect on the occasion of his 138th birth anniversary, which was in July, 2018.
The writer is at present the Pro-Vice Chancellor, Northern University, Bangladesh.