C. M. Naim

A Matter of History

A few weeks ago I came upon a blog essay in the Express-Tribune entitled, ‘Allama Muhammad Asad: The First Citizen of Pakistan.’ Its passion and concern for intellectual growth in Pakistan touched me. It also left me worried about the state of intellectual pursuits among young Pakistanis. The writer, Osama Sajid, a student of Economics at LUMS, had not bothered to mention any source for the claims he had resoundingly made. However, later in the comments, he acknowledged that his essay was almost entirely based on certain writings of Orya Maqbool Jan. It only increased my consternation.

According to the Wiki, Orya Maqbool Jan (henceforward OMJ) is ‘a columnist, writer, poet and civil servant from Pakistan.’ Additionally, he has served ‘as director general to Sustainable Development of the Walled City Project in Lahore and as executive director ECO, Cultural Institute, Tehran and information secretary to the government of the Punjab.Jan is also a member of the National Academic Council of the Institute of Policy Studies, Islamabad.’  OMJ’s columns are always cheerfully edifying. Not too long ago he was all for reintroducing the gold standard, to the extent even of using only coins made of gold and silver.  Then there have been his frequent reports on the many signs of an imminent Doomsday, the emergence of a mysterious jogi from the caves in the Himalayas, and the promised final conquest of India by the Muslims of Pakistan, Afghanistan and Syria.

Thanks to his fans, OMJ’s columns, both present and past, are available on the Internet in the original Urdu as well as an English translation. It made it easy to trace down the writings that had made such an impression on Mr. Sajid. They consist of three linked essays, entitled, ‘Hamārī Tārīkh ke Dardnāk Aurāq (Tragic Pages of Our History), published (in Express?) on March 14, 17 and 21, 2012.

What had caught my attention most in Mr. Sajid’s piece was the following:

In the Indian subcontinent, ‘madrassas’ were the only educational institutes present [before the arrival of the British] and their significance was that they used to teach religion and worldly subjects side by side. In most cases, there were more courses on the world than on religion, ranging from medicine, pure sciences, logic, philosophy, languages and mathematics to astrology. Before the arrival of Muslims in the subcontinent, such institutes were only present in Taxilla, belonging to Buddhists and they used to focus more on Buddhism with only a marginal presence of material subjects.

An important point to note is that it was the students of these madrassas who went up that ladder of success hardly achieved by others. The reason was their diverse knowledge base, comprising of both worldly knowledge and teachings of Islam, which used to complement the study of the material world. …

History shows that it was an Englishman named Warren Hastings, who in 1781 established a ‘madrassa’ in Calcutta for purely religious studies. This was a turning point, when religious and worldly education was separated, in an attempt to weaken our strong scholastic base.

Sir Syed Ahmed Khan, after founding the famous Aligarh University, came to a conclusion that religious and worldly education must be taught simultaneously. It was upon his insistence that the first reciprocal exchange program of India was established. Students from Aligarh were sent to ‘Darul Uloom Deoband’ of Sheikh Mahmoodul Hassan and their students came to Aligarh. The importance of this mix of education can be judged from the fact that it was compulsory for students to take part in this exchange program, without which they would not be granted degrees.

The last paragraph, in particular puzzled me, for it was too preposterous to have been invented by a young student.

Here (in my translation) is what OMJ wrote in Urdu in the second installment published on March 17 last year:

The introduction of religious education separate from a general worldly education was also a tragic page of our history. In the madrassas that existed in the subcontinent before the coming of the British the two syllabi were taught side by side. In fact, you will find that the courses of worldly education were more in number than those for religious education. In re Religion, there were the usual few topics related to the Quran and some chapters of Hadith, whereas the rest of the instruction given was devoted to Arabic, Persian, Philosophy, Logic, Medicine, Astronomy—[For some reason, OMJ coins his own word ‘Falakiyat’, instead of using the usual Hī’at.]—Arithmetic, Algebra, and Poetry together with Morphology and Syntax. We find in the subcontinent no trace of a school where these subjects were taught before the coming of the Muslims, except for one, the Buddhist school at Taxila. But there too the teachings of Buddha loomed larger over other subjects. There was a network of madrassas across the subcontinent, and the people educated in them ran the affairs of the state. They occupied highest government jobs, became historians and literature, and ranked as doctors and teachers. The tragic aspect is that the first, purely religious, madrassa was established by the British at Calcutta. And in contrast to it, they created a college for worldly education. Now the graduates from the latter began to get the state jobs, while those from the religious madrassa got confined to the four walls of mosques. …. Our Ulama became so contented with the confines of the mosques that they turned them into their own fiefdoms…. It was with reference to such conditions that Iqbal had said:

mullā ko jo masjid meñ hai sajde kī ijāzat

       nādāñ ye samajhtā hai ki islām hai āzād

The Mulla is permitted to prostrate in the mosque

And so he thinks Islam is free in India.

While the madrassas in mosques continued to change in imitation of the purely religious madrassa set up by the British, Sir Syed Ahmad Khan established Aligarh—[i.e. the M.A.O. College]. Then another man of vision recognized the danger. He was Shaikh Mahmudul Hasan (sic) of Deoband. He started a lengthy correspondence with Sir Syed, with the result that an arrangement was made between Deoband and Aligarh. Anyone getting a degree from Aligarh would come to Deoband for further instruction, and similarly no one graduating from Deoband would get his degree until he had received the [required] instruction at Aligarh. In 1904, Shaikh Mahmudul Hasan (sic) set up scholarships worth Rs. 15/- per month for any student from Deoband to study English at Aligarh. This was the first exchange program for Muslim students in India. It lasted for a while, but then the bossmen of worldly education at Aligarh and the monopolists of religious education [at Deoband] did not let it survive.

It’s true that the old madrassas taught both the manqūlāt—what OMJ would call purely religious—and ma’qūlāt—what he considers purely worldly. But it was not that Astronomy and Mathematics were taught as subjects in the modern accepted sense. Everything, both religious and worldly, was taught in terms of specific books that seldom if ever changed. Teachers were specialists in particular books, not in subjects. The knowledge transmitted was not cumulative; it did not expand from generation to generation, as it does in modern schools and universities. Secondly, the Abbasids may have had an Indian book on Arithmetic translated from Sanskrit into Arabic, but I know of no Indian ‘ālim of the last 800 years who made any effort to gain further knowledge of Indian Mathematics or wrote a new text on the subject for use in the madrassas. For that matter, no ‘ālim in South Asia has yet written a history of Mathematics as practiced by the Muslims. Whatever claims OMJ and his ilk make in that regard are based solely on the efforts of Western scholars.

I’m glad OMJ is aware of Taxila. But he does not know—or cares to know—about Nalanda, or the lesser-known but important centers of learning in South India. Lack of knowledge—in fact, a lack of curiosity—does not, however, stop him from making authoritative statements. Yes, the Calcutta Madrassa was set up by Warren Hastings, but it was not doing anything different from what was already being done at other madrassas. And the college at Fort William was for the education of British civil servants, not Indian children. The fact of the matter is that when a later Principal of the Madrasa ‘Aliya, Dr. Aloys Sprenger, tried to introduce newer ‘worldly’ subjects, the teachers and students of the Madrasa went on strike, refusing to accept any knowledge that came from the new textbooks written in lowly Urdu—the same books that were so successful at the old Delhi College, where scholars like Mamluk Ali and Rasheeduddin Khan taught alongside Master Ram Chander and students like Zakaullah and Nazir Ahmad blossomed. OMJ, of course, does not bother to explain how just one madrassa at Calcutta could become the exclusive model for all the madrassas from Patna to Peshawar and Lahore to Arcot, particularly when there was no worldly gain involved.

OMJ’s claim that in the pre-British times people went for education to madrassas and then became professionals is simply baseless. People learned from their own elders and by apprenticing themselves to established masters. Before the British introduced it in the 1830s there was no educational degree requirement for any job. When Syed Ahmad Khan got his first job it was by becoming an umīdvār at a court, first in Delhi and then in Agra. And one of his first books was a manual that prepared students for the newly introduced test in colonial laws for the post of a Tahsildar.

Finally, we come to OMJ’s biggest fabrication: the ‘first ever exchange program for Muslim students in India,’ which came about after a ‘lengthy correspondence’ between Shaikh Mahmud Hasan and Sir Syed.

Syed Ahmad Khan died in 1898. His final decade was filled with frustrations. He had no say in the affairs of his beloved college by then, which was very much controlled by its English principals and Nawab Mohsinul Mulk, not to mention Syed Mahmud. There exists no record of any correspondence, lengthy or otherwise, between Syed Ahmad Khan and Shaikh Mahmud Hasan. Had it existed it would have been included in the invaluable two volumes of Sir Syed’s letter published from Lahore not too long ago. Further, when Syed Ahmad Khan had tried to seek Deoband’s cooperation in designing a course of religious instruction at Aligarh, none other than Maulana Qasim Nanautavi, the founder of the Darul Ulum, refused to be a part of a committee in which Shi’ah scholars were given equal presence. As for Shaikh Mahmud Hasan, no doubt he began to teach at Deoband after finishing his own studies there—he was its first student—in the 1870s while Sir Syed was still alive, he did not become its director until much later, after Maulana Rashid Ahmad Gangohi.

So what do we actually know about this ‘exchange’ program? Here is what the always dependable S. M. Ikram tells us:

The Shaikhul Hind [Maulana Mahmud Hasan] established in 1906—[eight years after Sir Syed’s death]—an organization called Jam’īyat-al-Ansār, whose sessions were also attended by Sahibzada Aftab Ahmad Khan [of Aligarh]. In that connection, an agreement was made with the Aligarh College so that those English-knowing students who wished to engage in tablīgh would go to the Darul Ulum at Deoband to do Islamic Studies, and the Darul Ulum would make special arrangements for them. Likewise, Aligarh College would make special arrangements to teach English to those who had graduated from Deoband and wished [to learn English]. (Mauj-i-Kausar, p. 203.)

 

According to Maulana Manazir Ahsan Gilani, the attempt was initiated by Sahibzada Aftab Ahmad Khan when he visited Deoband in 1328 A.H. (1910 A.D.). (Savānih-i-Qāsimī, vol. 2, p. 294.) That was ten years after Sir Syed’s death. In any case, OMJ’s reveling in conspiracy theory and self-pity does not allow him to consider one simple question: if Deoband and Aligarh allegedly failed, why something similar was not undertaken at Lahore, Delhi, Hyderabad, Patna, Dhaka, and hundreds of other sites of Muslim learning across the sub-continent? Or was it another colonial conspiracy?

OMJ’s claims can be best described as ‘wishful history.’ Or, to use a line from Faiz: ‘It wasn’t so; I had only wished it were so.’ Unfortunately, that habit seems to have become very common among sub-continental Muslims, particularly those who feel secure in the knowledge that no better-informed non-Muslim would read them and then raise uncomfortable questions. It was not always the case. Certainly not before 1947. Also, no Urdu newspaper then would have allowed OMJ to quote Iqbal incorrectly. The first line as Iqbal wrote it is: mullā ko jo hai hind meñ sajde kī ijāzat. The error is slight. The shame of it is the fact that a well-established Urdu newspaper in Pakistan did not have anyone on its staff who could catch the error and correct it. (The verse remains uncorrected on the Internet.)

It is depressing that an evidently earnest and sincere young person like Osama Sajid could not find a more reliable mentor than OMJ. OMJ and his kind are a lost cause, but Sajid and thousands of others like him in South Asia, male and female, are not. To them I can offer only one advice. Please take some time out to read just two books, one in English the other in Urdu, before reading anything concerning the history of Muslim South Asia published in the last four decades.

1. Studies in Islamic Culture in the Indian Environment by Aziz Ahmad, first published in 1964. In less than 300 pages it will bring to your attention all the major issues, together with a useful bibliography.

2. The three-volume intellectual history by Shaikh Muhammad Ikram—Āb-i-Kausar; Rūd-i-Kausar; Mauj-i-Kausar—whose final revised version came out in the 1960s. There is also an English version of the latter, but better to read the original.

The two books are richly informative, fair and balanced, and do not indulge in wishful inventions of the kind that OMJ and others shamelessly foist upon their readers in the name of History.

( September 11, 2013)

About the author: naim

2 Comments

  1. Shamsur Rahman Faruqi

    I agree almost entirely … I fear, though, that the books recommended by him will remain unread by those whom he desires to educate. More than just advice is needed here: a soul searching, an honest introspection. But we are at present incapable of both. We are too brimming with resentment against the West, and especially America to stop and consider where we are going. The pity is, we are more willing than almost anyone else in the world to absorb America’s consumer goods, America’s culture of commercialism, of social exploitation. Only, we want to do it in the name of Islam. Is it not a pity that a student of LUMS whose campus looks more like an American campus than any that I know in the subcontinent should put the Orya Maqbool Jans of the world above the spirit of rational inquiry?
    SHAMSUR RAHMAN FARUQI, Allahabad, India, srfaruqi@gmail.com

  2. Thank you sir for giving your detailed feedback. Everyone make mistakes and I do accept that I should not have blindly accepted what Orya has said. I’ll inshAllah try to read the books you have suggested.

    C. M. Naim: Thank you for your brave and honest response. I hope you find the books. Remember, both were Pakistani writers.