Lost Legacy of South Asia’s Leading Centre of Islamic Learning

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Lost Legacy of South Asia’s Leading Centre of Islamic Learning

ByYoginder Sikand


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In the mid-seventeenth century, Aurangzeb, Emperor of India, granted a mansion in the city of Lucknow to one Mullah Qutubuddin Ansari, a scholar of Islamic law who had sided with him against his brothers in his war of succession for the Mughal throne. The mansion was named Firanghi Mahal after its previous occupant, a French (or Firangi, in Persian) trader.

One of Mullah Qutubuddin Ansari’s four sons, Mullah Nizamuddin Ansari, rose to become one of the most influential ulema of his times, combining mystical, rational as well as scriptural Islamic learning. Under Mullah Nizamuddin, Firangi Mahal, new home of the Ansari family, emerged as India’s leading centre of Islamic studies. Mullah Nizamuddin, and, after him, his descendants, attracted hundreds of seekers of knowledge—mostly, like them, Sunnis, but also several Shias and Hindus—many of who took up employment in various royal courts across the Indian subcontinent. Interestingly, most of them became government bureaucrats rather than professional ulema. Students stayed, some for several years, in buildings located around the Firangi Mahal, attracted by the fame of the scions of this illustrious family, many of who were regarded as accomplished scholars—not just of the Islamic sciences but of ‘rational’ sciences as well.

Mullah Nizamuddin prepared a reformed syllabus of study, which combined Sufi treatises, Islamic texts as well as books on the ‘rational’ sciences such as geography, logic, medicine, philosophy, literature and mathematics. The syllabus that he prepared, named after him as the Dars-e Nizami (‘The Syllabus of Nizami’) is still used by almost all Sunni madrasas across South Asia today, albeit in modified forms. In that sense, Mullah Nizamuddin and the ulema of his Firangi Mahal family can be said to be the founders of the existing madrasa system in India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Bangladesh and among most South Asian diasporic communities.

Today, almost nothing of that past grandeur of Firangi Mahal remains. The Firangi Mahal—or whatever is left of it—is located off a busy road constantly clogged with slow-moving traffic. A narrow lane, lined on either side with overflowing open drains and strewn with garbage, winds through run-down unpainted barrack-like houses with broken windows and walls festooned with posters of rival political parties. Goats sniff through piles of vegetable peels and rotting fruit. Ahead, an enormous mound of bricks and mud squats like a crumbling pyramid. A thin slice of wall peeks out from the rubble. The serpentine roots of a peepul tree grow out of what was once a delicately-carved dome. This was once the grand Firangi Mahal.

A board tagged on to a layer of bricks announces the now non-existent ‘Madrasa Nizamia’. This madrasa was set up in 1913 by one of the most well-known members of the Firanghi Mahal family, Maulana Abdul Bari, best known for being the first President of the Jamiat ul-Ulema-i Hind, an association of Indian ulema who played a leading role in India’s struggle for independence. Prior to this, learning at Firangi Mahal had been informal, with students studying with individual members of the Firangi Mahal family or in rented houses while studying in the teachers’ homes. Abdul Bari had sought to transform his family’s tradition of teaching and instruction into something resembling a modern school. But of that nothing now survives save for this rusted tin board. A few unlit, crumbling rooms remain from the original structure. These are now occupied by half a dozen families of weavers and embroiderers. Washing hangs from rafters poking out skeletons that remain of the walls. Hand-looms click and clack where once learned maulvis lectured.  

35 year old Khalid Rashid Firangi Mahali, Imam of the Lucknow Eidgah, is struggling to revive the lost tradition of learning of his forefathers. A student of the Christ Church College, Lucknow, he went on to finish the fazilat degree from Lucknow’s renowned Dar ul-Ulum Nadwat ul-Ulema, and then acquired a Ph.D. in Arabic from Lucknow University, where he worked on the contributions of his ancestors to Islamic education. The youngest member of the All-India Muslim Personal Law Board, he is known for his moderate, progressive views: he is the Convenor of the Lucknow-based Movement Against Terrorism, and is an ardent champion of girls’ education. Not surprisingly, he has his share of critics among the Muslims of Lucknow. He has even received death-threats for his outspoken views. Some months ago, he barely escaped death when he was fired upon by some disgruntled Muslim youth.

‘Our madrasa was once a leading centre of Islamic learning,’ Maulana Khalid says. ‘Numerous leaders of India’s independence struggle, including Gandhi, would stay in the madrasa when they visited Lucknow.’ The Partition of India, however, had spelled its doom. With Partition, most of the Muslim landed gentry of northern India left for Pakistan, and the madrasa, like so many others, lost a valuable source of patronage. Although several members of the Firangi Mahal family staunchly opposed the Partition—many of them were pro-Congress and some were even associated with the Communist Party—many others were fervent supporters of the Muslim League and the Pakistan demand. With the Partition, most of the family shifted to Pakistan, and some from there to the Gulf and the West, taking with them most of the precious books and other documents that had been the family’s prized possessions. None of them continued the family’s tradition of Islamic scholarship. Only two members of the extended family—Khalid Rashid himself, and his brother, Tariq Rashid, both sons of Maulana Ahmad Miyan Firangi Mahali—are qualified ulema.

Some years ago, Khalid Rashid explains, the family tried to revive the madrasa at Firangi Mahal. His brother Tariq Rashid, also a graduate of the Nadwat ul-Ulema, Lucknow, managed to have a single room in the crumbling ruins of the madrasa vacated from the illegal tenants who occupy the complex. Here he began giving lessons, but his experiment proved short-lived. Five months later, the classes were discontinued, and shortly after Tariq Rashid left for the United States, where he now manages an Islamic Centre in Florida.

In 2000, Khalid Rashid acquired a large plot of land in the heart of Lucknow, adjacent to the city’s Sunni Eidgah, where he set up the Madrasa Nizamia, named after his illustrious forefather. The madrasa, housed in an impressive three-storey structure, offers a seven-year alim course, structured on the Dars-e Nizami, along with certain ‘modern’ subjects such as English, Hindi and Computer Applications. Presently, some 150 students are pursuing the course. The madrasa also conducts a full-time six year alim course for girls, and now has some fifty girl students on its rolls. Khalid Rashid has opened a similar madrasa in Sihali, the ancestral home of the Ansaris of Firanghi Mahal.  

In addition to the madrasa, Khalid Rashid also operates the Lucknow Islamic Centre, which is located within the madrasa campus. It has an ambitious publishing programme, Khalid Rashid explains, focussing particularly on printing books and fatwa collections of generations of Firangi Mahal scholars that are no longer available in the market, some of which exist only in manuscript form. The Centre organises haj orientation camps for would-be hajis, training courses for imams, and occasional lectures on communal harmony, to which people of other faiths are also invited. It also has a dar ul-ifta, manned by a team of three qazis. So far, it has issued some 300 fatwas, including, recently, a fatwa that met with considerable opposition from certain hardliners because it insisted on universal education for girls.



After my interview with Khalid Rashid, I stuffed myself into a cycle-rickshaw and headed down, two kilometres away, to Bagh-e Maulvi Anwar, the ancestral graveyard of the Firangi Mahal family. The area was fringed with scores of ancient structures—mosques, mausoleums and palaces—almost all in advanced stages of disintegration, that date to the times of Lucknow’s erstwhile Shia rulers. Nothing in this squalid sea of filth and poverty even remotely resembled the image of Tourism Department posters that tirelessly extol the ‘exotic Lucknow of the Nawabs’ for the benefit of gullible would-be tourists.

Inside, the graveyard was littered with hundreds of graves, some simple mounds of mud, others elaborate marble mausoleums topped with carved gravestones. In a corner of the graveyard was a large canopied complex—it contained, among others, the grave of Mulla Nizamuddin himself. It was a Thursday evening, when pilgrims flock to Sufi shrines. A party of women—Hindus and Muslims—squatted at the entrance of the grave, mumbling their prayers and fiddling prayer beads. I stepped inside, settling down on the bare floor in front of the grave of Mullah Nizamuddin—a slender structure draped in a fading green cloth and lined with rose petals. An ancient man with an unpleasant face hobbled about busily, placing bottles of water in front of the grave and spreading out bunches of incense sticks and packets of popcorn-shaped sweets. A woman poked her head in through the door—women are not allowed to enter—and asked him for some ‘holy water’. The man grabbed a bottle, murmured some mantras and blew his breath into it, and then passed it to her. She handed him a five rupee note, which he stuffed into his pocket. He turned to me and asked if I wanted a similar bottle, ‘blessed’, he added, ‘with the baraka of Mullah Nizamuddin’. I politely refused, and he seemed somewhat offended at that.


Mullah Nizamuddin was, of course, no acclaimed Sufi saint, and he was certainly no miracle-monger, but that is how the awe-struck devotees who flock to his grave think he was. When I met Khalid Rashid again later that evening, he lamented how the grave of his ancestor had been changed into what he called a centre for un-Islamic ‘corruption’ (khurafat). The men who controlled the grave were not members of the Firangi Mahal family, he said. They had turned the grave into a centre of a cult simply to fleece the credulous, he explained. ‘We’ve tried to stop this, but we couldn’t. It would have led to sectarian conflict’, he said.


Mullah Nizamuddin, I could not help imagining, must certainly be groaning in his grave horrified at what it has now turned into. And also at what has happened to the Firangi Mahal itself, at one time the leading centre of Islamic learning in all of India. 




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