Concerning the avoidance of “English Education” in 19th century Muslim India

By Sayyid Mahbūb Rizwī
Translated by Prof. Murtaz Ḥusayn F. Qurayshī

This blame has gained notoriety against the ulema of India, particularly against the ulema of Deoband, that, by issuing a fetwa against the acquirement of the English education, they prevented the Muslims from acquiring it, wherefore the Muslims lagged behind other communities in in the field of worldly progress. But this blame is baseless, because the ulema were against only that curriculum which might lead the Muslims towards atheism and irreligion. This danger was being felt in Aligarh itself. Accordingly, to obviate it, an independent Department of Theology was established there, and when Maulana Muhammad Qasim’s son-in-law, Maulana Abd Allah Ansari, was invited to head it, the Dar al-Ulum promptly accepted this invitation. Maulana Abd Allah Ansari graced this post till the end of his life and after him, his son, Maulana Ahmed Mian Ansari, was appointed on this post. He was also a graduate of the Dar al- Ulum. It is, therefore, obvious that in case of opposition to the English system of education, this thing was not possible.

As regards those students who, after graduating from the Arabic schools, wished to enter government schools, Hazrat Maulana Nanautavi, in his speech delivered in a function of prize-distribution held in 1290/1873, had encouraged such students in the following words :—

“If the students of this madrasah join government schools to acquire the modern sciences, this acquirement would more shore up their accomplishment”.  (Rūdād Dār al-Ulūm Deoband, 1290 AH, p. 16)

Replying to the objection of certain people as to why modern sciences were not included in the syllabus of the Dar al-Ulum, he said :—

“If this thought is a stumbling block that there is no arrangement here at all for the profane sciences, its answer firstly is that there ought to be treatment of the disease. To take medicine for a disease which is not there is futile. The crack in the wall should be filled up; it is necessary to fill the kiln. What is it but silliness to be anxious about the brick that has not yet fallen down? What are the government schools for? If the profane sciences are not taught there; what else is done there? Had these schools been less in number than what are required, then it would not have, mattered. But it is common knowledge that through the government’s attention, towns and cities apart, schools have been opened even in villages. To make arrangement for the schools of secular sciences in their presence and be negligent towards the religious sciences is not the work of the longsighted wisdom”. (Rūdād, 1292 AH, p. 13)

In fact our ancestors did not feel any hesitation in adopting the arts and sciences of other nations even at that time when the flag of their greatness and power was flying over half the world. The Muslims in the past had not only adopted the philosophy of Aristotle and Plato and other Greek philosophers but had also become masters of the medical treasures of Hippocrates and Galen. Researches on Euclid and Ptolemy had become an interesting pastime of their lives. The Indian Arithmetic too had been cast in the Arabic mould. In this very way foundations were laid in the Arabic language of a new literature, history, philosophy and knowledge, medicine, arithmetic, astronomy, astrology, chemistry, physics and other arts and sciences, which are a proud wealth of culture and civilisation of the world today. The Muslims adopted these sciences in such a way that instead of being felt strange they look Islamic sciences. In the acquirement of arts and sciences Muslims have always been very large-minded. Every student of history knows that the Muslims have not only learnt the arts and sciences of Greece and India but have also developed and enlarged them. (Rūdād, 1292 AH, p. 13) 

It is an atrocious misunderstanding in respect of the ulema; English education was never called impermissible and illegitimate. The ulema were opposed rather to that culture only which was correlated with the English education and which alone was being considered the singular means of advancement. It will be apposite here to see by pondering over this blame in the light of historical facts what its reality is. Exactly at the time which coincided with the beginning of the late Sir Sayyid Ahmed Khan’s educational movement, a matchless divine of the time, Maulana Add al-Hayy Lakhnavi, who belonged to the old educational centre of Hanafite jurisprudence at Farangimahal, Lucknow, had issued the following fetwa regarding the English education :—

“To study the English language or learn to write English is prohibited if it be for the sake of resemblance, but if the purpose be this that we may be able to read letters written in English or know the contents of their books, then it matters little. It says in the Mishkat Sharif that the Holy Prophet (Allah’s peace and blessings be upon him!) ordered Hazrat Zaid bin Thabith to learn the Jews’ script (Hebrew) and he learnt it in a few days”. (Majmua-e Fatawa by Maulana Abd al-Hayy, vol. iii, p. 20.)

In Hazrat Maulana Rasheed Ahmed Gangohi’s Fatawa, in reply to a query regarding the learning and teaching of the English language, is written :—

“It is correct to learn the English language, provided one does not commit a sin and there may be no impairment in religion. (Fatawa Rasheediya, vol. i, p. 64.)

In the early period of the East India Company Hazrat Shah Abd al- Aziz Dehelvi’s fetwa too was to the same effect that “to learn the English language is permissible”. In short the respected ulema never opposed the English language in itself at any time. On the contrary, for the earning of livelihood and the acquirement of knowledge and information they explicitly issued a fetwa of its legitimacy, even as it is clearly evident from Hazrat Zaid bin Thabith’s example in the prophetic era. However that form alone was declared impermissible through which, due to different reasons, the student’s belief and faith were affected and which became the means of adopting un-Islamic culture, un-Islamic morals and anti-Islamic beliefs.

The reality in fact is this that there were serveral reasons for the Muslims’ avoidance of the English language. The foremost reason was this that, on the one hand, there was intense bitterness in the Muslims’ hearts against the aggressive English who had deprived them of rulership and empire; they (the Muslims) used to look at every thing of the English with aversion. The presence of inimical sentiments in the Muslims’ hearts regarding the Englishmen’s culture, civilisation and sciences was but natural. The Muslims had seen the lamp of the Mughal empire snuffed out before their own eyes; they had seen with their own eyes the spectacle of the royal family writhing in dust and blood; they had seen thousands of Muslims being put to the sword on very ordinary, flimsy suspicions. Thousands of Muslim families had been reduced to utter poverty (lit., were starving for want of even stale bread); and thousands of respectable families were wandering about aimlessly in a state of utter destitution and helplessness. They had seen the plunder and devastation of all those things which they considered the ultimate product of morality and human culture and without which their life had become prosaic, and their glory and honour had gone. They could not at all bear to give English education to their young children nor to have anything to do with the English. In that period the grave consequences of the mutiny and its reaction could not be psychologically overlooked. The struggle between Islam and Christianity that had been going on for centuries in Europe and the Middle East had now, according to their thinking, reached India also. Hence this thing had become indelible in the Muslims’ heart and mind that to tolerate Christianity and the Christian state would be detrimental to Islam and the Muslims. So they decided to completely boycott this new culture and civilisation and began to consider everything that was related to the English a portent of danger for Islam and the Muslims. It is evident that this kind of their thinking was a natural reaction of the circumstances, and for which, they should be considered excusable.

On the other hand, the English too considered the Muslims their real political rival. Although in the war of independence of 1857 the individuals of both the Hindu and the Muslim communities had participated and both the communities, as per their capacity, had taken part in this war, in the eyes of the English the Musalman alone was their real opponent. Hence the English, after gaining control, and considering him to be the real rebel, made him more and more a target of their oppression and grinding tyranny. The policy of depriving Muslims of every high place in the country and easy circumstances was adopted. The idea of the English was to make the Muslims educationally low and useless so that the vision of sovereignty and exaltation might get out of their heads. This wound had been inflicted so deep that it was not going to be healed in a few days.

At the same time the padres in India were not only allowed to preach Christianity but had also had the backing of the officials. The teachers in the schools and colleges used to be largely padres, and lessons of the Bible were compulsory. The ulema alone were not opposed to this thing but even the commonest Muslim, under such circumstances, was not prepared to send his children to the schools.

Maulana Fazl Haq Khairabadi who had been sentenced for life and transported to Andaman-Nicobar Islands for the guilt of issuing a fetwa of jihad of 1857, writes :—

“The English prepared a scheme to christianize all the Indian inhabitants. It was their belief that the Indians would not be able to find any helper and cooperator, and, therefore, save submit and obey, they would not have the nerve to defy them. The English had thoroughly realised that the rulers’ variance from the ruled on the basis of religion would be a great stumbling block in the way of domination and possession. Hence they began to indulge in all sorts of wiles and chicanery with complete diligence and assiduity, in their wilful attempt to obliterate religion and the sense of nationhood. To teach small children and the ignorant and to inculcate their language and religion, they established schools in towns and villages and made an all out effort to wipe out the old sciences and academic attainments”. (Al-Saurat al-Hindia, pp. 356 —7.)

Formerly the government used to be an institution, mainly concerned with administration of the country, army, police, revenue and finances.

Most of the walks of life were out of its circle of activity and gamut. The people of the country used to be free in their educational system, culture and civilisation, morals and social life, as a result of which it was not necessary that with the change of sovereignty change might come in education and culture also. But the frame of the British system of government was different from this; its circle of operation circumscribed the whole life of the country and the nation and its jurisdiction covered all the walks of life. English culture and English education had become correlative and these alone were considered the means of advancement and civility. The ulema were against this thing only.

In the Muslims’ avoidance of the modern education there was indeed some interference of the will and intention of English politics so that the Muslims might not remain able to rule, and, secondly, the Muslims themselves, for fear of irreligion, hesitated in admitting their children to schools.

These were the causes that obstructed the Muslims’ going to schools and colleges. Accordingly, when the padres’ activities cooled down due to their own continuous failures and the teaching of the Bible was excluded from the school course, and at the same time, as time passed on, the Muslims’ aversion against the English and English education gradually naturally subsided in the Muslims’ hearts, they began to incline, towards English education.

This is the reality of that blame which kept the Muslims away from the English education. In fact aversion to English education was the result of the Muslims’ national sense of honour and psychological reaction, and the ulema too were included among them. However, the ulema recognised the spirit of the age and with full insight and foresight never avoided issuing fetwa for the legitimacy of taking English education.

Rizvi, Sayyid Mahboob (1981). History of the Dār al-Ulūm Deoband, Volume 2. Deoband: Idara-e Ihtemam. p. 229-234.


 Related article(s):

al-Nānautawī: Why modern sciences were excluded from the syllabus of Dār al-‘Ulūm Deoband
ʻAllāmah Anwar Shāh Kashmīrī on learning of English and secular sciences

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