Volume of papers on the history of Muslim ulama in India

Developing Just Leadership

Naeem-ul Haq

Ramadan 11, 1423 2002-11-16

Book Review

by Naeem-ul Haq (Book Review, Crescent International Vol. 31, No. 18, Ramadan, 1423)

The ‘Ulama of Farangi Mahall and Islamic Culture in South Asia by Francis Robinson. Pub: C. Hurst & Co., London, UK, 2001. Pp: 267. Hbk: £40.00.

The Muslim community in India is sometimes seen as being peripheral to the mainstream of Muslim history and the Ummah, far from the "heartlands" of the Arab world and in a peculiar position as a minority community in a subcontinent dominated by India’s Hindu majority. There are a number of reasons for this. The Mughal Empire, which brought Muslim political power to the Indian subcontinent, never succeeded in converting more than a fraction of its people to Islam, and thus ruled over a very different sort of society, and created a very different sort of Muslim political power, from those of contemporaries such as the Ottoman and Safavid Empires. Seen from the Islamic centre, so to speak, it is often forgotten, or regarded as a unique outpost of Muslim power rather than as part of the thriving heart of Islamic civilization. As a result, the experiences and contributions of Indian Muslims, and their significance for the wider Ummah, can also often be marginalised and overlooked when the history of the Ummah is considered. Another factor, ironically, is that many Indian Muslims in recent times have preferred to emphasise their Indian-ness rather than their commonalities with the global Ummah; and it is such Muslims who have thrived in modern India.

This volume, a collection of articles and papers by Francis Robinson, Professor of the History of South Asia at the University of London, is a fascinating corrective to this tendency. Its title may give the impression of a rather narrow focus, but this is somewhat misleading. Although Robinson has close links with the Farangi Mahall, a family-based institution of ulama in Lucknow — a city that, as the capital of the Mughal state of Awadh, was once the beating heart of Islamic culture in northern India — and four of the eight papers in this volume are primarily concerned with the Farangi Mahall, the other four have far broader scope, and even those on the Farangi Mahall are relevant also to readers who do not have any particular interest in the institution itself. All the papers bar one have been published before, at various times in the last two decades, but in assorted journals and compilations where relatively few people can have seen them. Their publication in this volume brings them together in a form that is much more accessible to readers who may be interested in Indian Muslim history, without being academic specialists.

Three of the papers in the volume are concerned to place the history of Indian Muslims in the broader context of the Muslim world, in different contexts. The first paper in the volume, ‘Perso-Islamic Culture in India from the Seventeenth to the Early Twentieth Century’, first published in 1990, places the culture of Mughal India in the context of what Robinson calls ‘Perso-Islamic’: "fashioned by the Iranian and Turkish peoples of Central and Western Asia" from the eleventh century onwards, which Robinson characterises as "the second great cultural nexus of the Islamic world" alongside Arab-Islamic culture. Robinson emphasises that this Perso-Islamic culture, at least in the Indian context, was primarily the culture of those who ruled, rather than the culture of all Indians, or even of all Indian Muslims. In this paper, Robinson highlights features of this culture, suggesting that it was based on three key pillars: the Persian language and the literature which it expressed, Islamic scholarship, and sufi mysticism. He emphasises how far they were connected to the wider Muslim world, but also that, by the seventeenth century, they had developed strong local links and roots. In the eighteenth century, however, all these pillars were weakened for various reasons, resulting in a weakening of Perso-Islamic culture which, he suggests, "dissolved with almost shocking speed" after the 1820s and 1830s. The main reason for this was the impact and the consequences of British imperialism in India.

The last paper in the volume similarly seeks to link the Muslim society and institutions in Mughal India with the wider Muslim world, but with a much closer focus on the systems of Islamic scholarship and learning, and the nature of the esoteric understanding of major sufi orders. The paper, first published in 1997 (the newest paper in the volume), and titled ‘Ottomans — Safawids — Mughals: Shared Knowledge and Connective Systems’, compares the curricula taught in the madrasas of the three empires up to the end of the seventeenth century, highlighting the commonalities in materials used and other influences, as well as differences, particularly in the balances between transmitted and rational subjects. It also compares the shared spiritual interests, particularly the influence of Ibn Arabi over sufis in all three empires. Finally, it examines developments in both scholastic and spiritual knowledge in the three regions during the seventeenth to nineteenth centuries, showing in particular how the differing social and political developments affected them.

The third paper with this broader focus is rather different in scope: called ‘Ulama, Sufis and Colonial Rule in North India and Indonesia’, and first published in 1986, it compares the reactions of ulama and sufis in the two countries to the changing challenges posed by colonial rule, with particular reference to the generally accepted observation that Europeans were able to rule their empires only by the support of powerful men among their subject peoples.

The papers focusing on Indian affairs more specifically begin with a discussion on ‘Scholarship and Mysticism in Early Eighteenth-Century Awadh’, focussng on the consolidation of two distinct intellectual and spiritual traditions: the first, based in Delhi, combining the emphasis on the study of the hadith by ‘Abd al-Haqq Muhadith with the Naqshbandiyya-Mujahiddidiyya emphasis of Shaikh Ahmad Sirhindi; and the second, based in the madrasas of Awadh, combining the rationalist scholarship of Iran with the spiritualism following the line of Ibn Arabi, particularly by Chishti sufis. It was this latter line which was represented by the ulama of Farangi Mahall, who produced the Dars-e Nizamiyya curriculum which came to dominate in Indian madrasas over subsequent centuries, and who were a leading influence on Indian Islam until the last century.

The central four papers in the volume focus on different aspects of the culture and history of the Farangi Mahall: they are ‘The Ulama of Farangi Mahall and their Adab’ (1984), ‘Problems in the History of the Farangi Mahall Family or Learned and Holy Men’ (1987), ‘Al-Nizamiyya: A Group of Lucknow Intellectuals in the Early Twentieth Century’ (1989), and ‘Abd al-Bari and the Events of January 1926’, which had not previously been published. Although these papers focus on the Farangi Mahall specifically, to greater or lesser extents, this does not prevent them from being illuminative of the broader social, historical and political contexts of which they were a part. The last two papers, focusing on events around the ‘Khilafat Movement’ in India during and after the First World War, when Indian Muslims protested against British plans to abolish the Ottoman khilafah, are particular interesting, if slightly frustrating because they discuss such major events only indirectly.

At a time when many discussions of Islam focus on the unpleasantries — albeit necessary unpleasantries — of contemporary history and politics, a volume such as this is a welcome reminder of the richness of Muslim experience and history, both in India and — by extension — in other areas about which we tend to be ill-informed and which tend to be ignored or marginalised, such as Central Asia and southeast Asia.

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