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The Veneration of Teachers in Islam by their Pupils: Its Modern Significance

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Francis Robinson looks at the relationship between teacher and pupil in Islamic society.

On January 19th, 1926 Maulana Abdul Bari died. He was a learned man, the most learned man in his family in his generation. His family was the great Firangi Mahal family of Lucknow, capital of the Awadh province of India's Gangetic plain. Three days later the Nawab of Rampur, a leading Muslim prince, came to the quarter where Abdul Bari's relatives lived to offer his condolences. He met the family; he also visited the large madrassa , or school, which the family ran. While doing this, he said to one of his attendants 'this is our teachers' madrassa ... I wish to be of some service to it'. And he made a large donation to the madrassa's funds.

When the Nawab said 'this is our teachers' madrassa', he did not mean that he had been a student in the madrassa himself, nor even that his teachers had been taught there. Such an event was unlikely as the Nawab belonged to a minority Muslim sect, the Shias, while the Firangi Mahal family were Sunnis, the orthodox majority sect, and the two sects did not get on too well. He was referring to the fact that nearly 200 years before, when his forefathers had been Sunnis, two members of the Firangi Mahal family had come and taught in Rampur. The knowledge which his own teachers had passed on to him owed much to the work of these two Firangi Mahalis. The Nawab regarded himself, although he was a Shia, and in spite of the gap of nearly two centuries, as a pupil of the Firangi Mahal family. So he made his donation.

This incident illumines a relationship in Islamic society of great power, that of pupil and teacher, made up primarily of the pupil's regard for his teacher. Probably we would not include this relationship amongst those crucial relationships, for instance between man and wife, parent and child, employer and employee, which go to form the basic web of loyalties and connections that hold together our society. Yet in 'traditional' Islamic society the connection between pupil and teacher can frequently be as fundamental a relationship as familial and economic ones in our own.

It can bridge the Islamic world from end to end and, as the Nawab of Rampur demonstrated, down the ages. Our concern is first to explain why this relationship should be so strong and then to indicate the role it has played in Muslim societies as they have entered the modern world.

We shall examine the pupil-teacher relationship in the context of Abdul Bari's family which has been prominent in Islamic scholarship for several hundred years. In the sixteenth century the Emperor Akbar supported one ancestor in learning and teaching. In the late seventeenth century the Emperor Aurangzeb gave four of this man's great-great-grandsons the confiscated palace of a European indigo merchant in Lucknow which was known as Firangi Mahal, and made generous grants to support their work. This palace has been the base of the family's activities from the late seventeenth century to the present day. In the eighteenth century they made it into one of the largest centres of learning in north India, pioneering a new madrassa curriculum which has influenced all the curricula used in India since. For the past 200 years they have travelled throughout India and Arabia teaching wherever they have gone. Their pupils who have come from India, Arabia, Central Asia and China have spread even more widely than their teachers. Fortunately, the family has left rich records going back to the sixteenth century and it is from these, lightly studied though they be as yet, that we shall draw much of our evidence.

The learned men of Firangi Mahal won respect for six main reasons. The first sprang from the central importance of learning in Islam. God commanded man to learn. 'Read in the name of thy Lord who creates,' were the first words of God's first revelation to the Prophet Muhammad, '. . . read and thy Lord is most Generous who taught by the pen, taught man what he knew not'. Many other verses of God's revelation to Muhammad, the Quran, emphasise the paramount importance of reading, writing and seeking knowledge. This emphasis, moreover, is repeated in the traditions. 'Seek ye knowledge,' runs one famous tradition, 'even if it be in China.' 'An hour of learning,' goes another, 'is worth more than a year of prayer.' While the path of the scholar is the path to paradise over which the angels spread their wings to help him in his search. After declaring one's faith, there was no more important duty than seeking knowledge.

What God commanded man to study was His word. The Quran was the first subject the young Muslim encountered in school and his first task was to learn it by heart. Then there were the traditions, a vast number of sayings of and about the Prophet which had been collected in the years after his death, and the law which had been distilled from both the Quran and the traditions and the problems of making the Muslim community work by four great codifiers in the early centuries of its existence. Other subjects learned in the madrassa all supported these three main subjects. Students learned the Arabic of the Quran so that they could understand the language in which God had spoken, and much attention was paid to grammar so that His meaning was clearly understood. They learned how to interpret the Quran, the traditions and the law, and they learned logic to help them make best use of their learning in debate. Not all madrassas gave the same emphasis to all these subjects. Firangi Mahal favoured law and logic but another leading madrassa of north India, Deoband, stressed the study of the Quran and the traditions. All, however, would have agreed that the subjects listed above were the core subjects of Islamic learning, as they had been for 1,000 years. Mundane subjects were not for the madrassa. If a man wanted to be a painter, a bookbinder or a chemist, he apprenticed himself to a master in the craft. If he wanted to be a government servant or a soldier, he learned on the job in government service or the army. Such learning was not so highly valued as madrassa learning, though it was not without merit. For the closer to perfection a man came in his chosen profession, the closer he came to God.

Men who mastered the core of the madrassa curriculum knew what made a man a Muslim and how the community of Muslims should behave. God ranked them next to the angels in testifying to his unity: 'Allah bears witness that there is no God but He, and [so do] the angels and those possessed of knowledge. . . .' Should such men disappear, it would signify the end of the world as the people would be led astray by the ignorant. There could be no more important task for the learned than to teach, to raise up fresh bearers of the central traditions of their world, to mould new guardians of Islamic law and values, and to fashion the Islamic society of the future. As Muhammad had been the teacher of his time, they were the teachers of their time. Their function commanded the greatest respect, and so in advising a colleague in 1906 Abdul Bari outlined an extensive etiquette for the student in his relations with his teacher: 'he should walk several paces behind his teacher . . . he should strive to be the first to do his teacher's bidding . . . and should they differ, his teacher's word was final'.

The teacher commanded respect not just for what he knew but for what that knowledge wrought in him. Islam embraces every aspect of human existence and prescribes a correct way of doing everything. If he treasured his knowledge of Islam truly in his heart, it would be manifest in all he did. The teacher, as Abdul Bari advised his colleague, should be 'a mirror in which the student could make himself right'. For this reason the biographers of the most learned Firangi Mahalis describe their lives and habits in the minutest detail. When Abdul Razzaq drank water, we are told, he did so in three gulps. When he ate he did so sparingly. He washed three times both before and after eating, and so on. The lives of great learned men were models to be copied. Indeed, from these lives an ideal type of teacher emerges. He should devote his life to learning and passing on learning, and do so for God's sake and not for his own gain. He should have an inner life evident to all, observe religious duties punctiliously, be modest, avoid wealth, and especially avoid association with government. If his learning shaped his life thus, he gained a regard over and above that he was accorded just as a possessor of knowledge.

The determination to avoid association with government deserves further comment. After all Firangi Mahalis had been happy to receive the most generous support from the Mughal emperors Akbar and Aurangzeb; it was only with the decline of an effective Sunni Muslim government and the rise of Shia and later British successor states that their attitude changed. Nevertheless, their concern to have nothing to do with government was powerful. When government offered jobs, they were rejected. When government tried to honour their scholarship, the honours were refused. Maulana Abdul Razzaq was determined not even to set eyes on a British official. 'If the Chief Commissioner came to him', he announced, 'he would break his head with an axe.' If the teacher was to command respect under colonial rule, it was crucial that he was seen to owe loyalty to no one but God.

A third source of respect flowed from the immense personal debt which the student often came to owe the teacher. He might owe more of his upbringing to his teacher than to his family. Teachers, certainly at the higher levels, often taught in their own homes, and students went to live with them as they might have done in the European Middle Ages. Certainly in north India up to the end of the nineteenth century the establishment of an institutional framework was the exception rather than the rule. The famous Deoband madrassa was founded only in 1867 and that in Firangi Mahal in 1905. Even when a school was established, and the pupils were so many that it was impossible for all to stay with their teachers, favoured pupils would still do so. Thus Chaudhuri Azimuddin Ashraf went as a young boy to stay with Abdul Bari until he was seventeen. For two months of the year he went to his home in the country, but for the remaining ten he spent each day with Abdul Bari accompanying this learned man, when he was not being taught himself, through his routine of prayer, of teaching and of writing. The young Chaudhuri lived a kind of apprenticeship to being a learned man, and must have known Abdul Bari better than his own father.

The personal debt, however, was often greater. The Firangi Mahalis maintained that noble Islamic tradition, which has not always been followed, of teaching for nothing. How could they ask money for doing God's work. The Firangi Mahal madrassa, which on occasion had more than 400 students, charged no fees for teaching and depended almost completely on what members. of the community, like the Nawab of Rampur, donated unbidden. The great Firangi Mahali of the eighteenth century, Bahrul Ulum, which means 'Ocean of Knowledge', not only taught but fed from his own resources the 600 pupils who followed him from Bengal to Madras, living in poverty himself. So the pupil lived his early life close to men who gave much of themselves with no thought of material reward.

A further source of respect might stem from family associations down the centuries. The custom in high-ranking Muslim families in north India was to marry the nearest permissible relation, usually a first cousin. If one married outside the kin network, one was edged out of the family. The outcome was. to create a series of tightly-knit, though often widespread, extended family groups, highly conscious of family traditions - almost a series of distinctive family sub-cultures - handed down from generation to generation. Amongst these traditions might be pursuit of a particular occupation, or allegiance to institutions or to other families like that of Firangi Mahal. Chaudhuri Azimuddin Ashrafs family had been closely associated with Firangi Mahal at least from the late seventeenth century. So many pupils came to Firangi Mahal from the Mohani family that a special house was bought for them. There was a continuing association going back over hundreds of years with the families descended from the Muslim saints of the area. In this society where the authority of the past weighed so heavily on the present, the knowledge that one's forefathers had looked up to this family of learned men for centuries would only encourage one to do so oneself.

A fifth source of respect, or rather just gratitude, grew out of the actual conditions of teaching and learning. Knowledge was not easily won in this society; young ears and eyes were not under constant assault from radio and television, and even books were scarce. It was not possible to reproduce books in the languages of learning, Arabic and Persian, or the vernacular Urdu, in any way but by hand till the 1830s when lithography was introduced. Up to this time a man received the Islamic tradition almost entirely from the lips of a teacher. Ironically the introduction of printing brought little change as it coincided with the time when Urdu was coming rapidly to replace Persian and Arabic as the languages of polite and intellectual intercourse. Muslims were moving away from the languages which embraced the roots of knowledge. Now if they needed the teacher less as a transmitter of texts, they needed him all the more to bring the riches of the Muslim mind and spirit to bear on their comprehension of the Islamic curriculum they studied. Without a teacher as a guide, the pupil was truly lost.

Finally this close personal relationship, in which the pupil was dependent on the teacher'in so many different ways, was often sealed in spiritual experience. The madrassa curriculum gave the pupil one route to knowledge of God. But it was cold, legalistic and aimed to create social discipline: it did not thrill the soul. There was in Islam, however, another way of coming to know God, which was the way of the Sufi, the Islamic mystic, who strives to comprehend God by training his intuitive and spiritual faculties. Through this training, which is described as 'travelling the path', he aims to acquire such knowledge of God that he is absorbed in God, and the two become one. It was not an intellectual process, indeed it exists as a very necessary counterweight to intellectual, systematic, dogmatic, orthodox Islam.

All Firangi Mahalis, like most learned men in India, and indeed in the Muslim world at large, were sufis. They were important enough, moreover, to have played a leading role in the twentieth century in trying to revive and reform Indian mysticism. Some had been recognised as saints and their tombs were the focus of great annual celebrations in Lucknow. The tomb of one, Mulla Nizamuddin, the father of Bahrul Ulum and the first to teach in the Firangi Mahal palace, was famed for its power to help the mentally disturbed and students with problems over their work. What the student had to do was to leave a bottle of lamp oil in Nizamuddin's shrine overnight. If he then burned the oil in his lamp while studying, his difficulty would ease. In fact sufism and orthodox scholarship were so intertwined in the activities of the learned men of Firangi Mahal that they taught courses on the great Persian mystic, Jalaluddin Rumi, alongside the traditional curriculum; all the madrassa's holidays were arranged so that teachers and pupils could take part in the celebrations on saint's days; while the graduation ceremony was held during the annual celebrations at Bansa some thirty miles from Lucknow of the family's most important saint, Saiyid Abdur Razzaq Qadiri.

In such an environment many pupils became murids , spiritual disciples of their teachers, who were thus their pirs or spiritual guides. This was a tremendous bond, a tremendous source of respect for the learned man from his pupil. Theoretically the influence of the pir over his murid is absolute. The disciple must be in the hands of his pir like a corpse in the hands of the washer of the dead.

Clearly when some or occasionally all these elements combined they bred a quite extraordinary regard for the teacher. The bond tying a man to his teacher could be stronger than that of blood, so it was hardly surprising that the biographies of learned men always noted their teachers and listed their pupils. Moreover, lest it should be thought that this powerful relationship was special to the Firangi Mahal family, listen to what men have had to say on the subject at other times and in other places. Admittedly there is amongst Arabs a tradition of mocking the teacher. 'Do not seek advice', writes al-Jahiz, 'from teachers, shepherds and those who sit much among women.' But such mockery was an understandable counterpart to the normal deep veneration. 'Know that [your] teacher is the begetter of your soul', counselled one tenth-century educational manual, 'and the cause of its creation, and the essence of its life, in the same way as your father is the begetter of your body, and the cause of its existence'. A leading twentieth-century Egyptian scholar records how he lost a friend because as a student he criticised his teacher. Now a great teacher himself, he is deeply afflicted as the old respect from pupils wanes under the impact of modernisation: 'that a student should rise against his professor . . . was something I had not experienced before. When I did its enormity hit me, cut me to the quick, and reached the depths of my heart. After that I had no more confidence in peopleā€¦'

This pupil-teacher relationship, which is so much more powerful than similar relationships in our own society, has a significant part to play in the workings of the Islamic world. There is no 'church' in orthodox Sunni Islam, no hierarchy or religious institution to interpose itself between man and God. Nevertheless, these powerfully bonded pupil-teacher connections do represent an informal though nonetheless real organisational framework, flexible enough to respond to local circumstances yet strong enough to give the community some unity of culture and belief. Indeed we might consider these chains of connection stretching back to the early days of Islam and reaching out to all the lands where Muslims dwell as the major arteries of the Islamic world. Along these arteries are transmitted the standards of Muslim behaviour, the rules of social discipline, the things that make a man a Muslim and the community a truly Muslim community. Take them away and the community would quickly perish.

The central role of the learned men in maintaining God's community on earth has led frequently to difficult relations with the state. Those with power have always wished to draw the learned to their side to legitimise their rule. The ' responses of the learned have ranged from supporting a truly pious king to vigorously opposing those who undermined Islam, an opposition which has become more frequent over the past 200 years as Muslims have confronted both the colonial governments of Christian powers and the governments of Muslims themselves, striving to fashion after a Western style the fabric of the modern state. As the pupil-teacher connection has been crucial in transmitting Muslim law and values so it has played a vital role in the mobilising of Muslims for their defence, a point which is illuminated if we turn once again to Maulana Abdul Bari's family.

By the twentieth century the Firangi Mahal family were at the centre of a network of connections which covered India and the Islamic world outside. This network had been built up through the spreading of the family, through scholarship, through their mystical leadership, but its foundation was their many pupils broadcast throughout the Muslim community. It was an amazing network, barely rivalled in Indo-Muslim society either in the number or in the strength of the connections involved. It equalled anything that lawyers, traders or modern politicians could command, and it was matched only by government. While the family stayed out of politics their impressive connections were irrelevant. But in the second decade of the twentieth century, not only were the implications of the modern state becoming clearer, as there was fostered in India a system of education which no longer stemmed from God's word and a system of government in which the learned had no part, but the West seemed about to crush the Islamic world altogether. Christians drove Muslims out of the Balkans, they helped Jew displace Arab in holy Palestine, they aimed to dismember Turkey whose Sultan was the Caliph, in theory at least the leader of the Muslim world.

The learned men of Firangi Mahal launched into politics founding several organisations to defend Muslim interests and to put pressure on India's British rulers. At their head was Abdul Bari, the leading teacher of the time, who seemed able to make organisations grow like mushrooms overnight. While the Indian National Congress took thirty-five years to span India's many provinces and districts, the Khilafat Committee, the most important organisation in which Abdul Bari was involved, achieved the same in a few months. The Committee aimed to persuade the British to protect Turkey and the holy places of Islam. From 1919 to 1923 it ran the largest political protest India had yet seen, making politics for a time no longer a game played by a small elite in the cities but a mass movement running through the casbahs and villages of the countryside. The connections of the learned men of Firangi Mahal were central, particularly to its early growth, and there is graphic evidence of their involvement in the thousands of letters and telegrams in the family archives. Through the pupil-teacher network they, and other learned men, were able to bring the passions of the masses to bear on this major religious issue, as they were to do again in the 1940s during the campaign for Pakistan.

What the learned men could do in South Asia, they also did elsewhere. Consider other mass movements in Muslim societies over the last 100 years: the Sarekat Islam in Indonesia after the First World War; the three-year-long revolt in Egypt at the same time; the long and bloody history of resistance to a Western influenced modernisation in Iran 'from the Tobacco Protest of the 1890s to the revolution of 1978-79. In all these movements the learned men of Islam played a major part, and their pupils followed them. The word went out from Shaikhs of Cairo's Al Azhar University to their former pupils in the villages of the Nile Delta; teachers in Javan pesantren issued religious edicts to be followed and repeated by their pupils in hundreds of rural prayer houses; during 1978 and 1979 the instruction to resist the Shah was proclaimed from Qom, the greatest teaching centre of Iranian Islam whose thousands of pupils are scattered through the country's many mosques. The leader of the opposition, Ayatollah Khomeini, was above all things a teacher. He has spent most of life at the Faizieh madrassa in Qom preaching and teaching. His pupils are to be found scattered throughout Iran: we are credibly informed that they sit on Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Council. Just as the veneration of pupils for teachers formed a network of respect and loyalty whichhelped Islamic society survive almost a century of determined modernisation in Iran, so that same network provided the channels along which Iranians could be mobilised for revolution.

Further Reading:

  • For Islamic education see, A. L. Tibawi, Islamic Education: Its Traditions and Modernization into the Arab National Systems (Luzac, 1972)
  • The most trenchant exposition of how teachers should be venerated can be found in a fascinating Arabic document of the thirteenth century, E. E. Von Grunebaum and T. M. Abel (trans. and eds.) Az-Zarnuji: Ta'lintal-Muta'allim-Tariqat-Ta'allum: Instruction of the Student: the Method of Learning (The Iranian Institute and School of Asiatic Studies, New York, 1947)
  • For the Firangi Mahal family see, F. Robinson, 'Farangi Mahall' and 'Abd al-Bari' in the Encyclopaedia of Islam , Second edition, Supplement (E. J. Brill Leiden, forthcoming) and 'The Ulama of Firangi Mahal and their adab' in B. Metcalf, ed., Sources of Moral Authority in South Asian Islam (forthcoming): for their politics see F. Robinson Separatism Among Indian Muslims: The Politics of the United Provinces' Muslims 1860-1923 (Cambridge, 1974).
  • For the oppositional role of learned men in Iran's recent history see, the Essays by Keddie and Algar in N. R. Keddie, ed., Scholars, Saints and Sufis: Muslim Religious Institutions since 1500 (University of California Press, 1972).

Dr Francis Robinson is Lecturer in History at Royal Holloway College, University of London.

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