“In Pakistan, the situation is not ripe for rational Islamic traditions because of multiple reasons”
By Aamir Riaz
Professor Francis Christopher Rowland Robinson is a rare treasure among contemporary historians who unfolded South Asian Sufi Islam’s link with rationality and modernity. British academic, Robinson had been working on this issue much before 9/11. The rise of Islamic fundamentalism proved that doubts of Robinson were justified. He squabbled that rise of Islamic extremism among Muslim minority sects of South Asia was an ultimate result of departure from Islamic rational sciences in the late 19th and early 20th century by the forces of Islamic reformism and Western education. Those who have interest in this theme can read his books, including Atlas of the Islamic World Since 1500 (1982), Islam and Muslim History in South Asia (2000), The Ulama of Farangi Mahall and Islamic Culture in South Asia (2001), The Mughal Emperors (2007), and Islam, South Asia, and the West (2007). Robinson had to work on unprecedented Sufi traditions of the Punjab and Sindh as he successfully challenged so-called reformist movements. History of the development of South Asian Muslim mind can be traced among notions like Whadat-ul-Wajod, Wahdat ul Shahud, Manqulat (Transmitted sciences) and Maqulat (Rational sciences). Currently, Robinson is associated with Royal Holloway, University of London as Professor of History of South Asia and with Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies. During his recent visit to Lahore, Robinson shared his thoughts with The News on Sunday.
The News on Sunday (TNS): Who were Farangi Mahalis and what was their struggle and legacy?
Francis Christopher Rowland Robinson (FCRR): Farangi Mahalis trace their descent through eleventh century mystic, Abd Allah Ansari of Herat, a city situated at the Afghan-Iran border. At the time of Allahudin Khalji they came to the Punjab and settled in Panipat. One branch of the family stayed in the Punjab and descendents of that branch remained in prominence even after partition. Yet another section migrated to Awadh and settled at Sihali, north of Lukhnow. That branch first came to historical prominence when King Akbar gave some land as Madad-e-Mash (Grant in Aid) to Mullah Hafiz in 1558. A farman is still in record in Pakistan, probably not the first farman of Akbar yet it is the oldest one which still exists. In the family papers, there is continuation of farmans and parwanas throughout 16th and 17th centuries which showed that those Ulama were strongly supported by Mughals.
In 1691, a very dramatic incident happened with the family. There were some landed families who were very jealous of Ulama due to their imperial support. That landed family came from Satray, a qasba near Sihali and attacked on the leading Farangi Mahali figure of that time, Maulana Qutbuddin. They ransacked his house and destroyed his huge library. There were almost 800 rare books and inscriptions in his library. Several people, including Qutbuddin were killed. After the incident, all the four sons of Qutbuddin, now shaheed went to the court of Aurangzeb Alamgir, the last Mughal emperor to say what is happened. In Aurangzeb’s court a detailed statement was recorded and that statement still exists in family records in Karachi under the title Mazhar Nama. To compensate them, Aurangzeb gifted the sequestered property of an European indigo merchant to the sons of Maulana Qutbuddin. So, in 1694 the family of Ulama moved to Lucknow in the large Haveli which was commonly known as Farangi Mahal.
TNS: What was the background of killing, mere jealousy or sectarianism?
FCRR: No, No. It was only jealousy. Those Ulama had enormous respect not only in the court but also among influential as well as common people. Those Ulama were scattered in the whole empire and played an important role in establishing the authority of successive Mughals. So, that incident showed the beginning of weakness of the Mughal authority. I knew the names of people involved in it. You will soon read it in my upcoming book.
In 1573, Mullah Sherazi came to Mughal courts from Bijapur (Shiraz). He was a great scholar of Islamic rational sciences (Maqulat). Farangi Mahal Ulama along with Mullah Sherazi developed a unique system of Islamic Learning based on Qalam, Hikmat, Mantaq, Mathematics and Astronomy. From 1573, till 17th century, they developed numerous madarassas which had pupils not only from all leading Muslim sects but also from non-Muslims. It was the contribution of Farangi Mahali Ulama that Awadh soon became Shiraz-e-Hind, a centre of Islamic rational sciences. So in (North) India we had a very balanced legacy of rational Islamic thought. It was Farangi Mahalis who developed Dars-e-Nizami, which was in fact, a modern way of teachings. They started from dust yet had successfully created a balance by mixing Tariqat with Shariat along with a strong pillar of rational sciences. It was a unique experience at that time. It was the third son of Maulana Qutbuddin, Mulla Nizamudin (d.1748) who formally created Dars-e-Nizami.
TNS: Some people say that Dars-e-Nizami was created by Nizamudin Toosi.
FCRR: No, the main work was done by Mullah Qutabudin while it was Mullah Nizamudin who collected all things and arranged it. One thing we should remember that Dars-e-Nizami was not a particular system to preach particular thoughts. It was actually a style of teaching. It was a creative way of teaching in which pupil could learn even very difficult books in shortest time. It was a system which up to some extent gives space for reasoning in the process of studies. Dars-e-Nizami became very popular among common people during the eighteenth century. Due to its openness it started producing pupils of fame in every important field.
TNS: There were many schools of thought among Muslims at that time who were Farangi Mahalis.
FCRR: Farangi Mahalis followed the Sufi path. They always balanced Shariat with Tariqat. For them spiritual understanding was key to become a good Alim (scholar). They laid great emphasis on balance. In the nineteenth century, under the influence of Shah Wali Ullah family, Wahabi influence came to India from Hijaz.
TNS: Can we say that in late eighteenth and early ninteenthcentury, extremist religious thought came to India from Hijaz and Yemen based on Wahabi and Ahle Tashieh fiqahs?
FCRR: You are absolutely right. It was the beginning of a reaction against sufi thought. It was a time when all extremists started campaigns to lay emphasis on the text. In a situation where Muslims were gradually losing power, it was easy to preach for individual correctness. Farangi Mahalis remained stuck with traditional learning methods and did not lose their commitment with rationality. Deobandies initially followed traditional learning methods similar to Farangi Mahalis yet, later on, they left the path of rational science (maqulaat) and started emphasising on transmitted sciences (Manqulaat). Farangi Mahalis had differences with Ahl-e-hadith and Ahl-e-Tashieh Ulama. They had many common things with Ahmad Reza Khan Barelvi like urs, melad, visiting mazars yet they had reservations with him too. Actually, it is hard to fix Farangi Mahalis with any particular Muslim sect. Due to their love with rationality they played a balancing role in society in general. Numerous pupils belonging to different schools of thought taught in Farangi Mahali institutions of learning. Ahl e Tasheeh scholar Tafazzal Husain of early nineteenth century was a fine example. It was Tafazzal Husain who translated Newton’s Principia into Arabic in 1816 because of his learning in Farangi Mahali traditions.
TNS: Who published it?
FCRR: It was published from Calcutta, the result of rational Islamic thought of Farangi Mahalis. Yet Farangi Mahalis faced difficulties from Shia Nawabs.
TNS: Were Farangi Mahalis elitist?
FCRR: You are right. Farangi Mahalis’ way was pretty elitist. They have close relationships with Taluqadars of Awadh. They had close relationship with families who owned dargahs. Many Farangi Mahalis were present in courts, like Rampur, Bhopal, Awadh, etc. They were elitist yet their conclusions were more human. Like Ahmed Reza Khan, Farangi Mahalis belonged to Qadirya silsala yet they did not allow practices based in “superstitions” in the name of the Prophet.
TNS: From seventeenth till nineteenth century, Farangi Mahali traditions ruled in areas of Oudh, UP, Bihar, etc. During the same time we had a tremendous tradition of Punjabi and Sindhi Sufi poets based on tolerance and love for all. They did not create institutions, neither were they elitist, yet their influence is still very powerful in our societies. Can you compare both?
FCRR: It is a reality that the way Mian Mir, Bulleh Shah, Waris Shah and Latif Bhitai influenced their societies was much different from Farangi Mahali traditions. It is true that due to their elitist position Mahalis had limits. Gradually, their disciples started moving towards mass contact. The last examples were Maulana Hasrat Mohani and Maulana Jamal Mian Farangi Mahali. Both were friends. Hasrat Mohani was the only non-Farangi Mahali who is buried in traditional Farangi Mahali graveyard. Both were elected members in the UP assembly and worked together. Poetry of Hasrat Mohani is an example of changing trends in M silsala. Jamal Mian Farangi Mahali’s second son Mahmud Jamal is also a poet. He lives in London. Recently, Penguin Classic published his selection of Sufi poetry. It is also an example of continuation.
TNS: Due to the elitist position Mahali scholarship disappeared gradually, but we still have a strong tradition of tolerance and peace in the shape of Punjabi Sufi poets from Fareed, Nanak till Khawaja Fareed.
FCRR: It is the right analysis. One has to make a distinction. There were two types of Islamic traditions. One was dependent on state while the other was dependent on people. The second one survived which has roots in society at large. I also mentioned that Mahali tradition is a major victim of partition too.
Here, I want to give another example where Ulama develop a system without depending on state and succeeded. That was Deobandies and Darul Uloom Deoband. Deobandies created their way being Muslim outside the state. They developed a whole set up of institutions in terms of madarassas outside Deoband and in terms of institution of learning they set up within Deoband. They developed it entirely on public funding. Let me explain it. It is part of genius of South Asian Muslims over the past 200 years that with the loss of political power they created substantial institutional structures for the continuation of efforts regarding Islamic society without power. Sufi intellectuals like Baba Fareed, Bulleh Shah, Shah Latif, Khawaja Fareed and Mian Muhammad Buksh had an inclusive tradition of Sufism.
TNS: Now in Pakistan, all Muslim sects have militant as well as extremist positions. It’s a pretty complex situation. Do you think in the current situation, the Mahali thought can help?
FCRR: It can play a positive role but for this one has to revive it. There should be people who believe in rational traditions of Islamic learning based on Sufism. In situations where you have sectarian militant wings in all school of Muslim thoughts it is very difficult to bridge the gap. You have to translate Mahalis’ theological thoughts, into modern language. In Pakistan, the situation is not ripe for rational Islamic traditions due to multiple reasons. If someone really has an interest in reviving Mahalis’ position it should be done outside the circles of current Ulama. Muslim modernists can play a vital role in it. Turkey is an excellent example in this regard.
TNS: In India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, non-Mahali traditions are very powerful in power corridors. They have inroads in power circle and rational Sufi tradition has no room.
FCRR: Yes, quite right. If you talk about rational Mahali position, it is difficult to find their followers.
TNS: There is a myth regarding theological position of Pathans and Afghans. Even recent scholarship, too, has carried it. It is often said that Pashtun society is nothing to do with Sufi tradition.
FCRR: I do not know much. But one thing I want to tell you regarding original Deobandies traditions. What is done in recent past in India and Pakistan in the name of Deoband traditions is quite different from the thoughts and ideas of its founders. Classical Deoband traditions are very much closer to Mahali position. In the late 70s, due to Saudi money they took a position more close to Wahabis. Pukhtun society became victim of that nexus.
TNS: Post 1979 Iran also played an important role in the rise of militancy, extremism and sectarianism not only in Pakistan but also in the Middle East.
FCRR: It is true, but in case of Pakistan comparatively, that support was not as huge. In that case, Iranians failed to follow their traditional role.
TNS: In your book, you have mentioned a term Perso-Islamic traditions. Would you explain?
FCRR: It is not a religious or sectarian thing. Perso-Islamic traditions nurtured the Muslim mind for almost 600 years. Persian language and poetry played an important role. From Istanbul, Central Asia to Bengal and from Iran to Punjab influence of Persian was tremendous. It helped in cultivation of liberal, modern Muslim mind. During the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, there was a conflict between Islamic rational sciences and transmitted sciences. One striking development in that era in South Asia had been the rejection of Perso-Islamic tradition. That rejection ultimately helped the destruction of rational Islamic science and embracing the Arabic and the Western way.
TNS: So, you think it was nexus of Arabic traditions with the West which ruined Perso-Islamic tradition.
FCRR: It did.
TNS: Interesting mixture and it is still in place.
FCRR: Yes, and it is still in place in the twenty first century. Perso-Islamic tradition had some influence of Iran due to Shiraz yet it had nothing to do with any particular Muslims school of thought. Indeed, Ottomans and Mughals played an important role in spreading Perso-Islamic traditions. It was true not only for Samarkand, Istanbul and Shiraz but also for South Asia. Even in their first 100 years, British Indian administration shared that tradition. Until 1835, Persian was the official language under the British Indian Administration.