ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Muslim Politics in a Microcosm

The Ulama of Farangi Mahall and Islamic Culture in South Asia by Francis Robinson; Permanent Black, New Delhi, 2001, pp 267, Rs 545.

This is a collection of essays on the Lucknow based family of the ulama of Farangi Mahall. The essays cover a general discussion on the Perso-Islamic culture in India, the traditions of scholarship and mysticism in Awadh and a detailed analysis of the lives and times of the Farangi Mahall family: their genealogy, ‘adab’, curriculum, publications and political activities. What results is not only an engaging account of Islamic knowledgeable traditions in the 18th-20th centuries, but also a foray into Muslim politics from the perspective of the unique Farangi Mahall seminary. 

Muslim politics has been generally studied either from the biographical window of Muslim nationalists like Abul Kalam Azad, or through the study of late 19th century movements of reform and revivalism that rocked the community. This included both the westward inclined strands represented by Sir Sayid Ahmad Khan as well as the more cautious ones like those of Deoband. Recently some work has been done for the Punjab region that focuses on Muslim politics that articulated around Sufis and Sajadanashins. However, the Farangi Mahall is unique because it represented neither of these trends. The trajectories of Muslim politics gleaned through its family records throw new light on our understanding of this critical period of history. Robinson has done a great service to Indian studies by bringing together the history of the family and establishing its connections with some of the key concerns of the period.

Farangi Mahall was exceptional because its learning tradition that was set up in the 18th century imparted both ‘manqulat’ (religious studies) and maqulat (rational sciences) studies. Indeed its curriculum privileged the latter, much before the late 19th century reformists emphasised the importance of such learning. The essays give us a clear sense of both the documentations in the family archives, as well as a detailed family history based on these invaluables. Thus we know that located in Lucknow, the Sunni Muslim ulama family had the unusual name of Farangi Mahall because they were the beneficiaries of a Mughal grant of a European merchant house in the late 17th century. Emperor Aurangzeb gifted this house to the sons of the ‘madad-I-maash’ holder Mulla Qutub-al-Din Sihali in lieu of the losses he suffered at the hands of the local zamindars of Sihali. Once established in Lucknow, the descendants of the Mulla built up a reputation for teaching and scholarship, which attracted students from much of India and abroad. The third son of the Mulla, Nizam-al-Din, formalised a syllabus for the madrasa curriculum. This was called ‘Dars-i- Nizamiya. Its specialty was that it incorporated the maqulat traditions, even as it continued to teach manqulat subjects. The stress on maqulat learning was to remain the focus of study at Farangi Mahall. This is what gave Farangi Mahall a character distinct from late 19th century madrasas like Deoband and Nadwat-ul-Ulema.

The essays discuss in detail the evolution of the madrasa, its pupils and most importantly the late 19th century reconfigurations in its syllabus in response to the pressures related to the arrival of western colonial modernity. Robinson’s thesis is that the changed context of colonial India considerably transformed the thrust areas of the Dars-i-Nizamiya. In a defensive reaction to colonial modernity, the institution emphasised more than ever the manqulat (religious studies) strand of its curriculum. In the changed context of the late 19th century, when Islam had to be protected from the western onslaught, this seemed to be the most logical reaction. The change was justified for other reasons as well. The colonial state had no demand for men trained in Islamic rational sciences – philosophy and medicine – and thus such training was deemed useless. As Islamic learning withdrew into its narrow religion confines, it linked up more with pan-Islamic issues and revivalist movements that were more concerned with the carving and underlining of a distinct Muslim identity for the community. Robinson appears to suggest that the western definition of Islamic fundamentalism perhaps lie somewhere in these developments.


A Scholar’s Life

Robinson discusses the difference between the Farangi Mahall reaction to western colonial modernity and their politics and that of Deoband and Nadwat-ul-ulama through a useful essay on the life of the influential Farangi Mahall scholar Abd-Al-Bari. Bari’s position was that the family should take up those political issues, which affected the interests of Islam both nationally and internationally. This kind of politics predictably brought him to the forefront of the Khilafat movement and the non-cooperation that followed. The family’s political engagement continued up to 1947. In contrast the Deobandis’ aimed to shape proper Islamic patterned lives, since it was not possible to establish an Islamic government. Colonialism was thus to be fought by internal reforms. Politically it was to be tolerated until the right moment arrived for its overthrow. The Farangi Mahallis thus led the way in active politics; the Deobandis followed suit.

However, one wishes that there were a more detailed discussion on not just the difference in the academic orientations of the Deobandis and Farangi Mahallis, but on their specific engagement with colonial modernity. For instance, what exactly were the points of consensus and what constituted the critical breaks. That their origins were different and academic slants varied is a point well made; but what is lacking is how exactly, if at all, they came together even as they differed. Perhaps some information about the social base of the pupils in the two institutions may provide clues on these issues. Also not very clear is the direction of political activism of the Farangi Mahallis after the Khilafat euphoria subsided.

The detailed history of the Farangi Mahall family that this collection puts together is notable. Its suggestive implications towards a rethink on Muslim politics are no less significant. But for Robinson’s work one would continue to look at Muslim politics either through the eyes of the nationalists or through seminaries like Deoband. The Farangi Mahall study shows that even if Muslim politics is to be gleaned through madrasas, the picture is complex. For both in their academic orientation and politics such institutions varied. However, the more general argument of Robinson about the Farangi Mahall withdrawl to the more theological driven (manqulat) strand of their syllabus in response to colonial modernity raises several problems. The problems arise because of the generalisations that he arrives at about such trends reflecting a shift towards a more conservative Muslim politics. The suggestion is that issues of Muslim identity rather than the earlier more outward looking liberal stance now dominate politics. One doubts if this was really the case. Or is it that we continue to see Muslim politics through the window of seminaries – their varied slants notwithstanding.

It is in precisely this so-called period of ‘withdrawal’ to more narrowly defined religious learning that a number of Muslim institutions of ‘secular’ ‘rational’ learning, like medicine, also come up. For instance, the talk of establishing ‘tibbiya’ colleges (Unani medical colleges) in Lucknow begins within the affluent and literate sections of the city in the late 19th century. Significantly, many such families, like the famous Azizi family of Lucknow hakims, have been students at Farangi Mahall and have studied medicine in that seminary. The Farangi Mahall’s concentration on manqulat (religious studies) in this period my have triggered the establishment of separate institutions for maqulat studies (rational sciences). But the point is that the change in Farangi Mahall’s stance does not mean a general drift of the community towards concerns of their religious identity or conservatism. In fact just the contrary. In 1902, member of the Azizi family who studied medical sciences at Farangi Mahall set up the first tibbiya college in Lucknow. This continued to be a hub of ‘secular’ learning until 1947. It survived the trauma of partition and none of its founder family members migrate to Pakistan. Perhaps we need to explore the histories of such parallel institutions of ‘secular’ learning and families involved in such exercises before we generalise on the course of Muslim politics in the 20th century.

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