Cam Diary: Lucknow’s Farangi Mahal
The presence of Nizamuddin Sehlvi and his family in a short time made Firangi Mahal into such a fine university that this small quarter of Lucknow became the centre for learned men from all over India
People take their names from place names and places, too, get named after people. Cities, towns, mohallas and other areas get named after all sorts of people: founders, rulers, victors, generals, civic figures, scholars and holy persons, to name a few.
A cursory glance at a map provides a long list of names. Take Pakistan, for instance: Hyderabad (from Haider), Dera Ismail Khan, Dera Ghazi Khan, Mirpur (from Amir), Nawabshah, Rahimyar Khan, Faisalabad (or Lyel-pur of the British), Wazirabad, and Muzaffarabad. Or, take India: Hyderabad and Nizamabad (both in Andhra Pradesh), Aurangabad and Ahmadnagar (in Maharashtra), Ahmedabad (Gujarat), Nasirabad (Rajasthan), Aligarh and Shahjahanpur (UP), Faridkot and Ferozepur (Punjab).
Such a list becomes endless when we start including names from other countries or begin looking closely at mohalla names within cities. But in India, Lucknow to be precise, let us look closely at a particular name. Let us concentrate on a historical place, a palace, in this ancient Muslim city of the kingdom of Awadh (Oudh): Farangi Mahal.
“Farangi” is the Persian term for “Franks” or Europeans. The Farang concerned was, in fact, a well-to-do French merchant during Mughal King Akbar’s reign who obtained permission to trade in horses in the then commercially prosperous city of Lucknow. “Mahal”, as in Taj Mahal, is simply “palace”. Now, this Mahal remained government property until the time of Mughal Aurangzeb who presented it as a gift to the learned Mullah Nizamuddin Sehalvi. This surname is itself from Sihali, a town in the Bara Banki District of UP. The family shifted from Sihali to the Farangi Mahal around 1695.
In a paper entitled “Problems in the History of the Farangi Mahall: Family of Learned and Holy Men” (1987), the British historian Francis Robinson says: “Teaching was their first occupation; they made Farangi Mahall into a centre of learning which attracted scholars not only from all parts of India but also from places as far away as Arabia, Central Asia and China. In the early eighteenth century it must have been one of the largest centres of learning in India.”
Abdul Haleem Sharar, a renowned Urdu writer, was a teacher at the Farangi Mahal in the early part of the 20th century. He writes in his marvellous book “Lucknow: The Last Phase of an Oriental Culture” (translated and edited by ES Harcourt and Fakhir Hussain, 1989): “The presence of this scholarly maulvi [Nizamuddin Sehlvi] and his family had in a short time made Firangi Mahal into such a fine university that this small quarter of Lucknow became the centre for learned men from all over India.”
Shibli Naumani, the famous Islamic scholar, called Farangi Mahal the “Cambridge of India”. Sharar explains further: “It was astonishing that such a place should develop a great university, before which not only India but Bukhara, Khwarazam, Herat and Kabul [historic Islamic centres of learning] bowed their heads. The whole Islamic world took pride in acquiring knowledge here and at their own universities following the syllabus of Mulla Nizami [known as Silsila-e-Nizamia].”
In his new book “The Ulama of Farangi Mahall and Islamic Culture in South Asia” (2001), Robinson says, “The learned and holy men of Farangi Mahall were the consolidators in India of the rationalist tradition in Islamic scholarship derived from Iran”. The blurb for the book emphasises that these scholars “represented a confident and flexible Islamic understanding”.
Maulana Abdul Bari (1878-1926) is one of the most famous Farangi Mahal scholars. The author of 111 books, Bari was prominent in the Khilafat movement as well as in religious organisations such as Jamiat al-ulama-e-Hind. Other famous people associated with the Farangi Mahal include: Altaf Husain Hali, a poet of the Aligarh Movement; Mohammad Moinuddin Ansari, Chief Justice Supreme Court, State of Rampur; and M.A. Ansari, a President of All-India Muslim League.
So, a building — Farangi Mahal — takes its name from a European fellow. This place then bestows its name on some scholarly maulvi’s family — Farangi Mahallis. These Farangi Mahalli’ are descendants of Abu Ayub Ansari, a companion of the Prophet. An area just outside Istanbul is named after him: “Eyup” in Turkish. Abu Ayub Ansari was martyred at this place in 50 AH (665 AD) while on a campaign.
The surname Ansari comes from the Arabic word “Ansar” meaning “helpers”, which is a name given to those people who were residents of Madinah and who helped the Prophet and the Muslims when they migrated there from Makkah. Those who migrated were called “Muhajjirs”. By some strange twist of history, we have these days “Muhajjir’s” in Pakistan who are “Ansaris”!
Members of the Farangi Mahal family of Lucknow shifted to Pakistan at Partition time. Maulana Jamaal Mian of Karachi is the son of the famous Maulana Bari. Other descendants of the Farangi Mahalli’s have migrated to the West, to the USA and UK. “Moin A” (Hasan Moinudin Ansari) a well-known Internet newsgroup poster is one such person. He now lives in New Jersey, USA. Members of the Sharar family now live in the UK.
That just about sums it up. A European travels to the East and gives hiis name to a place there. Easterners adopt that name and eventually travel to the West. West in the East, East in the West. About time I had a rest!
—Sir Cam, Cambridge, England