Mughal emperor Akbar’s royal decree of a revenue-free land grant to Mullah Hafiz | Images courtesy family of Maulana Jamal Mian
Mughal emperor Akbar’s royal decree of a revenue-free land grant to Mullah Hafiz | Images courtesy family of Maulana Jamal Mian

On the 19th of Rajab, in the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb’s 35th regnal year, the Sufi-scholar Shaikh Qutb al Din begins preparing to teach his many students after finishing his morning prayers at his residence in Sehali in Bara Banki, Lucknow. Just two hours into his lessons, the entire premises is suddenly surrounded by armed men. They break in through the walls and unleash mayhem inside. Shaikh Qutb al Din is brutally murdered, sustaining one wound from gunshot, one from an axe and seven from a sword.

The tragic details are recorded on a document (mahzar) bearing the testimony of no less than 75 witnesses, to be presented to the emperor. Aurangzeb promises quick retribution and, in compensation for their loss, grants the sons a property in Lucknow — an abandoned haveli [mansion] that once belonged to a French indigo merchant and which would go on to house one of Islamic South Asia’s most distinguished families of scholars and saints: Farangi Mahal.

These are the rather gory beginnings of the eponymous Farangi Mahallis, whose ancestors had settled in North India much earlier in the 14th century. One of Akbar’s earliest extant farmaans or royal decrees (the young emperor was only 17 at the time) is thus a revenue-free land grant (madad-i-ma’ash) to Mullah Hafiz, the great-grandfather of the murdered Qutb al Din Sihalvi. One of the four sons of Shaikh Qutb al Din — Mullah Nizam al Din — in turn immortalised his own name and that of his family by introducing the Dars-i-Nizami, which was destined to become one of the most widely taught educational curricula in the madressahs of South Asia to this day.

The publication by the scholar Khushtar Noorani of a tazkira [biographical memoirs] of the Farangi Mahallis is thus a welcome development in the process of bringing to light the vast spiritual and intellectual riches of our forebears. Titled Ulema-i- Farangi Mahal, the tazkira was originally penned in Arabic by Maulana Abd al Bari Farangi Mahalli (1878-1926) in 1907. It was published in the same year by the Matba’ Mujtaba’i in Lucknow, but remained out of print for over a century, until Noorani’s current edition. Noorani has not only reprinted the original Arabic text, he has also translated it into Urdu, along with detailed annotations, comprehensive indexes and a learned preface, all to constitute an important critical edition of the work. As the scholar Arif Naushahi notes, Noorani’s critical apparatus expands a 37-page tazkira into a work of nearly 500 pages.

The sons of Shaikh Qutb al Din took possession of Farangi Mahal in Lucknow as a result of Emperor Aurangzeb’s order above
The sons of Shaikh Qutb al Din took possession of Farangi Mahal in Lucknow as a result of Emperor Aurangzeb’s order above

The book is divided into four parts: the first, by way of introduction, is a detailed study of Abd al Bari’s life by Noorani. Part two is the Arabic text of the tazkira, followed by its Urdu translation. The last part consists of the editor’s additional notes on each of the figures mentioned in the tazkira.

A superb new book about a remarkable family of scholars fills in an important gap in our society’s spiritual, intellectual, political and literary lineage

The tazkira proper consists of brief accounts of 137 Farangi Mahallis, to which the editor adds considerably in the form of annotations. These 137 include almost all of the major figures of Farangi Mahal, as well as many lesser known ones. Reading through these accounts, one gets a sense of how deeply the Farangi Mahallis are integrated into the wider South Asian world. As the reader works his way through these biographies, the book gradually seems to come alive with the bustle of life — Sufis, scholars, poets, teachers, lawyers, muftis, hakeems, officers and politicians, all rise from these lines to populate a world that is remarkable, not the least for emerging out of a single haveli. Interestingly, Abd al Bari includes a touching account of his mother as well, who passed away when he was still writing the book.

For each Farangi Mahalli mentioned in the tazkira, Noorani has added considerable information from his own research, besides mentioning the precise sources for further research. These sources are themselves introduced and described in detail at the end of the work, making it a one-stop resource for those interested in diving deeper into the riches of Farangi Mahal.

The introduction is a sympathetic study of the present tazkira’s author Maulana Abd al Bari, one of the most important figures of early 20th century Islam and politics in South Asia, though hardly recognised as such. Noorani offers a vivid portrait of Abd al Bari’s short (he died at 47) but prolific life. His biography is, in effect, a tour through the heady political ferment of the first two decades of the 20th century, when the all-Indian national struggle for greater independence from the British is running in parallel with the more particular projects and aspirations of Muslims and Hindus.

At times, the courses of these parallel projects cross over, resulting in unlikely partnerships and alliances. One such historical chiasma is the Khilafat Movement, which saw the likes of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru and Sarojini Naidu alight at the doorstep of Abd al Bari’s haveli in Lucknow, to organise an all-Indian resistance against the British. This was a high point of Muslim-Hindu political unity, with the Khilafat Movement and Gandhi’s non-cooperation movement espousing and strengthening each other’s causes in the face of a common enemy.

The Khilafat Movement is, in fact, a theme that unites most of Abd al Bari’s political activities. Abd al Bari’s passionate attachment and protectiveness for Islam’s sacred symbols in Makkah and Madina was, of course, not anomalous but representative of Indo-Islamic sentiments, informed as they were by deeply entrenched traditions of love for the Prophet (PBUH). Thus, even though the disintegration of the Ottoman caliphate was a cause of great concern for the entire Islamic world, it was India, more than any other region, that saw the greatest agitation and political mobilisation to save the symbols of the Islamic past, as well as ensure the protection of the sacred sites in Makkah and Madina (a farsighted concern indeed, given what happened later to these under the British-supported Saudi regime).

Even before the Khilafat Movement, Maulana Abd al Bari was at the forefront of creating the Anjuman-i-Khuddam-i-Kaaba for a similar cause, and later, the All-India Khilafat Committee. The scenes hark back to a time when Islam in South Asia was deeply connected with happenings in other parts of the Muslim world — a stark contrast to our blatant hypocrisy today in maintaining careful silence over the plight of China’s Uighur Muslims.

Noorani narrates the socio-political developments contemporaneous with Abd al Bari’s life vividly and with considerable archival depth, making a persuasive case for Maulana Abd al Bari as one of the most important Indian Muslim political leaders of the early 20th century. Despite this, popular discussions of the period, and of the Khilafat Movement, can often go on without as much as mentioning Abd al Bari. Noorani’s may be the most complete account available so far of Abd al Bari’s life and, hopefully will go some way towards addressing this lacuna.

Politics, however, is only one aspect of Abd al Bari’s multi-faceted personality — one which occupied him only in the last decade of his rather short life. Noorani offers a detailed view of Abd al Bari as a Sufi shaikh in the Qadiri order, a scholar, a mufti, as well as a tireless teacher. Despite the loss of several of his works, no less than 111 are still extant, including works on Arabic grammar, Islamic jurisprudence, theology, Sufism, hadith and Quranic exegesis. He was also a student of Maulana Jalaluddin Rumi’s Masnavi, and taught it to his students. Unique among his writings is a Risala Science Aur Kalam, consisting of no less than 34 volumes, of which only one has been published so far. Finally, there are eight unpublished volumes of his correspondences and diaries, relating mainly to his political life, including letters to and from almost all the major political leaders of the time.

Ulema-i-Farangi Mahal is thus an important step in bringing Farangi Mahal and Abd al Bari closer to us today, and complements well the scholar Francis Robinson’s recent biography of Jamal Mian, who is Abd al Bari’s son (Jamal Mian: The Life of Maulana Jamaluddin Abdul Wahhab of Farangi Mahall, 1919-2012). As the reader of Noorani’s work will be reminded, the community of ulema and sufiya have traditionally constituted a crucial part of our society’s spiritual, intellectual, political and literary lives — something which has become very hard for most of us today even to imagine, given our presentist biases or outright ignorance of our pasts, both of which obstruct any proper view of this world.

Finally, however strained the political relations between Pakistan and India may be, it is heartening to note that Noorani’s book was published at the same time in both countries, and is thus read together by communities still united by ties that run deeper than the more recent political fissures that divide them.

The reviewer is a PhD student at the University of Chicago and studies history with a focus on Islam in South Asia

Ulema-i-Farangi Mahal
Edited and translated by
Dr Khushtar Noorani
Worldview, Lahore
ISBN: 978-9697999002
478pp.

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, August 9th, 2020