Muhammad Husain (pen name Jah) was Urdu’s greatest prose stylist and an accomplished poet. His father, Syed Ghulam Husain, was a rammal or diviner. Hardly any information exists about Jah’s life before he published his first composition, Tilism-e Fasahat, in 1874 through the Naval Kishore Press, Lucknow. He was of the Shia faith and trained in narrating the episodes of Husain’s martyrdom at Karbala. After Jah’s success with Tilism-e Fasahat, Naval Kishore Press hired him to compose the Tilism-e Hoshruba. A first volume was published in 1883. According to Jah’s own account, he compiled the legend of Tilism-e Hoshruba using traditions from the three written accounts of Mir Ahmad Ali Rampuri/Amba Prasad Rasa, Muhammad Amir Khan, and Ghulam Raza. He also used traditions from Shaikh Tasadduq Husain, a fellow dastan narrator and dastan writer. The second volume of Tilism-e Hoshruba came out in 1884. But there was a delay of four years before the third volume was published in 1888–89. Considering the popularity of Tilism-e Hoshruba, the Press demanded that Jah finish the subsequent volumes speedily. It appears Jah could not meet those demands.
Jah was also devastated by the deaths of his young son and daughter, which occurred while he wrote the third volume. For awhile he even stopped writing and only resumed it at the encouragement of publisher Munshi Naval Kishore. After the printing of the fourth volume of Tilism-e Hoshruba in 1890, the Naval Kishore Press replaced Jah with another Lucknow dastan narrator, Ahmed Husain Qamar.
We know that Jah’s work on Tilism-e Hoshruba was close to his heart and he continued with it even after his disassociation with the Naval Kishore Press. In December of the same year, he started his own press, named Husaini Press, and privately published the first part of Tilism-e Hoshruba’s fifth volume. Only one copy of this book is known to exist, which was recently discovered by the Urdu researcher Rifaqat Ali Shahid. Its first four pages, in which Jah may have explained his reasons for leaving the Naval Kishore Press, are missing. Nothing could be said with certainty at this time about the exact circumstances in which Jah separated from the Naval Kishore Press and what happened to his other works, if there were any. In a notice printed in the fifth volume of Hoshruba, published by the Naval Kishore Press, Ahmed Husain Qamar mentions that “some chance accidents” brought about the end of Jah’s association with the publisher.
Other notices at the back of the various editions of Tilism-e Hoshruba reveal that Jah’s death occurred between December, 1890, and October, 1893. According to Urdu scholar Shamsur Rahman Faruqi, the time recorded for the death of Jah’s young children and a comparison of his contemporaries’ ages reveals that Jah died at a relatively young age.
Meanwhile, Ahmed Husain Qamar continued his work on the remaining volumes of the Tilism-e Hoshruba. He proved extremely prolific, perhaps in competition with Jah’s Husaini Press, or in reaction to public demand. The fifth volume was published in two parts in 1891. The publication of the sixth volume in 1892 was quickly followed by the seventh and last volume in 1893.
Only fragmentary information is available about the professional relationship between Jah and Qamar. Jah duly credited all his sources. In his first published work, Tilism-e Fasahat, he mentions Ahmed Husain Qamar as his instructor. But according to Faruqi, the uncharacteristic exaggeration and hyperbole he uses to credit Qamar suggests that Jah did so ironically. Qamar himself never made any claims to be Jah’s teacher, although he did make many false and contrary claims to appropriate the credit for the authorship of the Tilism-e Hoshruba from Jah and past authors and narrators of the legend.
From documentary evidence, three people are known to have taught Jah. None of them were dastan narrators and may not have influenced his dastan narration. They were Mir Fida Ali Fida, a nisar or prose narrator; Mushi Ashraf Ali Ashraf, a calligrapher employed at the Naval Kishore Press; and a poet who used the pen name Sehr. The poet Mirza Jafar Husain Qamar Lakhnavi is mentioned as Jah’s pupil.
The Tilism-e Hoshruba became a bestseller and remains the best known legend of fantasy literature in the Urdu language. Eight editions were published from 1883 to 1930 from Lucknow alone.