The fall of the Mughal Empire led to intense cultural and religious movements and not a period of stagnation, says researcher Tabir Kalam

Tabir Kalam, who teaches Medieval Indian History at Banaras Hindu University, has undertaken an in-depth study of 18th and 19th Century India and feels that contrary to common perception, this period was not one of decline and disintegration but vibrant with cultural movements.

Perhaps because the Mughal Empire went into a steady decline, and the next major imperial power to rule India was Britain, the smaller principalities that were established across the region as a result of the decline of the Mughals have not received their share of observation by historians.

Political eclipse, it seems, has been equated with an overall cultural dissolution. Thus, in his book, “Religious Tradition and Culture in Eighteenth Century North India” — though bristling with references and sometimes abstruse for a lay reader — the author deals at some length with the vigorous social, literary and religious movements, led by luminaries like the scholar and reformer Shah Waliullah, besides the poets and educationists of the time; the rise of Urdu as a literary language surpassing Persian, and the dance, music and theatre arts that flourished.

In an email interview, he answers questions related to the book.

Edited excerpts:

What is the target readership of the book?

The target readership of the book are academics, particularly historians, journalists, students and those interested in the 18Century debate of decadence or efflorescence in the realm of culture and religion and in the genesis and development of prominent religious movements of the 19th Century.

For example, the Wahabi Movement was a very powerful movement of India in late 18th and early 19th centuries. Initially it was a puritan movement, however, later on it culminated as an anti-Sikh and anti-British movement. If we go through the genesis of Wahabi movement then we get to know that this movement was tracing the lineage from Madrasa Rahimia of Shah Waliullah and Shah Abdul Aziz.

When the book is titled “Religious Tradition and Culture in 18th Century North India”, why have you concentrated only on the efforts of the Muslim community to bring about a renaissance?

My study is mainly concerned with the emergence of regional kingdoms and the expansion and proliferation of imperial court culture in different regions following the Mughal imperial decline. The 18th Century was earlier depicted by historians as a period of decay and decline in political sphere. But amid the scenes of political chaos and decline at the centre there were great activities in the sphere of religion and culture in the regional areas. The purpose of the study is to correct the unbalanced picture of a very important period of study by focusing on religion and culture and succeed in breaking fresh grounds in the process. While going through the sources of the 18th century the most fascinating aspect for me was the dynamism and prominence of Muslim religious leaders, poets, kings and nobles such as Shah Waliullah, Shah Abdul Aziz, Mulla Nizamuddin of Firangi Mahal, Muhammad Shah (Rangila), Asifuddaula, Mir Taqi Mir, Sauda, and Mir Hasan. It became apparent that the most prominent figures who contributed in the religious and cultural spheres of life of 18th century were mainly Muslims. It is therefore true that my study has remained primarily focused on the Muslim community alone. I would also like to add that the other movements and figures could not be given due consideration in order to keep things manageable.

Why do you suppose our historians have often talked about Sir Syed Ahmed in glowing terms, while neglecting a luminary like Shah Waliullah?

Academics who have worked on Islamic education and Muslim history of South Asia have not neglected Shah Waliullah. In fact, there are many works on the role of Shah Waliullah in political, social, cultural and educational developments of the period. Sir Syed Ahmad Khan, however, received more importance because of his being a modernist who guided and buttressed the efforts of the Muslim community to engage in a dialogue with modernity in order to deal with the new socio-economic challenges after establishment of the British rule. Sir Syed Ahmad Khan consequently emerged as a great figure advocating the cause of Muslim community, and historians have interpreted his concern in different ways.

Shah Waliullah on the other hand, was not a modernist. His religious and educational activities have been given due attention by historians. However, his efforts to unite the Muslim community and rejuvenate the declining Mughal Empire have not received much scholarly attention and this is the aspect that I have tried to focus upon in my study.

The Firangi Mahal school in the past talked in terms of jurisprudence and rational science. Now we find the school more involved in politics. How do you think this transition came about?

The family members of Mulla Qutbuddin Sihalwi contributed a lot in the field of logic and philosophy of Islamic science. In the 18th Century after the disintegration of the Mughal empire and emergence of independent regional kingdoms the pupils and family members of Firangi Mahal took services of the Nawabs of Awadh, Rampur, Farrukhabad, Hyderabad, etc. Many of them also found employment in British India as hakim, mudarris, ulama, civil servants and administrators.

They made Lucknow the great centre of learning in north India.

In the early 20th Century one of the prominent figures from the family of Firangi Mahal, Abdul Bari, gave support to the campaign of separate electorates in the Morley-Minto Council reform and later on Khilafat Movement. The gradual shift of their attention to cope with modernity and modern challenges compelled the Firangi Mahal to become active in political sphere of India.

In my study my concern with Firangi Mahal is in the effective ways in which this madrasa became instrumental in dissemination of Islamic knowledge of jurisprudence and rational science in 18th Century.

Undoubtedly at present this madrasa is not very much functional in the dissemination of Muslim/Islamic education.

Rather, the Deoband Madrasa and Nadwatul Ulama of Lucknow have taken up this task. Having lineage of a great history of educational activities, the people related to Firangi Mahal are trying to indulge in politics to regain power and prestige.