A funny but untrue piece of history lies at the heart of Victoria and Abdul, the British-made box office hit of last year. Queen Victoria could not tell a Muslim from a Hindu, no more than she knew the difference between a mango and a peach.

Apparently, she did not realise until it was pointed out to her, that Abdul Karim, her munshi, “an Indian language teacher or secretary usually appointed in the Colonial times”, was a Muslim. And at one point in the film, the elderly queen tries a mango for the first time. Karim pokes the overripe fruit and advises her to send it back. It is an amusing scene. But completely inaccurate. Queen Victoria sucked on a mango over 50 years earlier, when Framji Cowasji, an enterprising Parsi from Bombay, began the export of the fruit to Britain, including one destined as a gift for the young queen.

Likewise, Queen Victoria knew all about Indian Muslims. On the eve of the Indian Rebellion of 1857, she met the mother of the King of Awadh. In 1876, it was the turn of Salar Jung, Dewan to the Nizam of Hyderabad, who came to London seeking favours from the Queen-Empress. Throughout the 1870s she corresponded with Shah Jahan, the Begum of Bhopal, exchanging gifts and books.

Such details complicate the familiar stereotypes of the colonial encounter perpetuated by narratives such as Victoria and Abdul. An ignorant empress occasionally distracted by the exoticism and romance of the East is much easier on the eye, than a female head of state intervening in the concerns of her Muslim subjects. Yet that is precisely what Queen Victoria did, as the following story of her relationship with another Muslim, Rafiuddin Ahmad, demonstrates.

Queen Victoria was deeply interested in the affairs of her Muslim subjects, unlike what is portrayed in the movie 'Victoria and Abdul'. Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons [Licensed under Public Domain]

Rise of the maulvi

Rafiuddin Ahmad was a young Muslim from Pune who came to London in 1889 to study to be a lawyer. Soon he became one of the principal spokesmen for moderate Indian Muslim loyalism in England, helping to establish the Moslem Patriotic League. At the end of 1892, Ahmad created a sensation after he published copies of pages from the queen’s private journal that were written in Hindustani, in the Strand magazine. Ahmad had been shown the diaries during a visit to Balmoral Castle in Scotland. His article praised the queen for her Oriental studies, how they set an example to the princes of India, how they confirmed her bond with the Indian people, and how they exerted a positive influence over the Caliphate (the Sultan of Turkey).

The scoop brought instant notoriety. Profiles of Ahmad, the Orientalist scholar and maulvi, a teacher of Islamic law, followed in newspapers. Doors began to open. He became a regular visitor at court. The Prince of Wales granted him an audience, and he was on the guest list for the wedding of George, the Duke of York (and future King-Emperor), to Princess Mary of Teck in July 1893. The Queen gave her seal of approval by commissioning his portrait. No other Indian during her reign sped so fast from obscurity to acceptance at court. However, unlike the munshi, the maulvi has eluded detection by historians entirely.

Rafiuddin Ahmad's views and ideas exerted a tremendous influence on the Queen. Photo courtesy: Author.

Wielding influence

Queen Victoria was not only flattered by the attention of Ahmad, she was also influenced by his ideas. “He is remarkably clever and most loyal and anxious to bring about the best of feeling between England and India,” the queen told the Secretary of State for India, calling him “a staunch but liberal-minded Mahomedan”.

In an article in 1892, Ahmad spelt out the demographic arithmetic that made Muslims in India wary of a widening of representative institutions that would leave them overwhelmed by a Hindu majority electorate. In June 1892, the queen passed on her concern about this issue to Lord Lansdowne, the Viceroy, in relation to the Indian Councils Act passed that year, which authorised an increase in the size of the various legislative councils in British India.

Two years later Ahmad took up the cause of Indian Muslims caught up in the plague scares affecting the pilgrim traffic to the Haj at Mecca. Armed with introductions from the queen he met officials at the Foreign Office and at the India Office and brought about improvements in the inspection of the Haj passenger ships, something he later claimed had brought “unfeigned satisfaction” to Indian Muslims.

The premise of the movie 'Victoria and Abdul' was predicated on an untrue piece of history. Photo credit: Focus Features

Finally, towards the end of 1894, Ahmad wrote a stinging criticism of the Indian National Congress, arguing that the communal riots that had broken out recently in Bombay in were the result of INC’s political provocation. Again, the queen was prompted into action, sending a telegram to the Viceroy, asking him to provide further information and to take action to defend Muslims.

Game of spies

The queen’s courtiers and the India Office were alarmed by Ahmad, particularly when he joined the munshi and the rest of the royal party on vacation on the French Riviera in 1893. Expelled from the holiday, police spies tracked his movements and collected information about his contacts in India, suspecting he was an agent of the Emir of Afghanistan. But the queen remained loyal. In 1898 she recommended that the Viceroy, Lord Curzon, consult Ahmad’s article The Proposed Muslim University in India in the monthly periodical the Nineteenth Century, calling for a new university in India to be dedicated to the higher education of Muslims (eventually established in Aligarh).

The story of the Empress and the maulvi reveals a different side to Queen Victoria, and places the Raj in an unfamiliar perspective. The British are often rightly accused, most recently by Shashi Tharoor in his book Inglorious Empire, of fanning the flames of communalism in India, creating the Hindu-Muslim divide. Here lies some counter-evidence. We see the queen taking seriously her own words in the 1858 proclamation, when she promised to be a queen of all religions in India. At the close of her reign she stood up for the minority rights of Muslims, just as she had refused to back Christian missionaries wanting to convert Hindus after the 1857 revolt. The queen could not only distinguish a Muslim from a Hindu, she knew of their plight and wanted to do something about it.

Queen Victoria's funeral procession. At the time of her death, she had the respect of many Muslims in India. Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons [Licensed under Public Domain]

Little wonder that when she died, she was venerated by many Muslims in India. As her final illness took over in 1901, Ahmad led prayers for her recovery at a mosque in Liverpool (one of the first mosques in the UK). And when she died, amidst the all-India mourning, Muslim historians, such as Muhammad Zakaullah of Delhi, compiled lengthy tributes to the Queen in Urdu. In Hyderabad, the Nizam stepped in to pardon a condemned man just as the noose was tightening around his neck. It sounds like a scene from a film – more Bollywood than Pinewood perhaps. But sometimes history tells different stories from art, and offers alternative parables. Surely it is important that they are recovered too.

Miles Taylor teaches history at the University of York, UK. His new book, The English Maharani: Queen Victoria and India, will be published by Penguin/Random House in September.