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The Veil of Purity: Tropes of Nineteenth-Century Islamic Reform and Ahmad Khan’s naicar

In: Philological Encounters
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Fatima Burney School of Social Sciences, Humanities and Arts, University of California Merced, California USA

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Abstract

Syed Ahmad Khan (1817–1898) was one of the most prominent Indian Muslim reformists of the nineteenth century and was exceptional for the ways in which he proposed that nature and observations of nature were central to Islam. Like many nineteenth-century reformist narratives, Khan’s ideals on naicar (nature) routinely employed a rhetoric of ‘break,’ ‘renewal,’ and ‘purity’ to imply that Indo-Persian culture was in a state of malaise and in need of rejuvenation. Yet despite this outward denunciation, Khan’s reformist project also ironically reflected many qualities of Persianate Islam that had characterized Indo-Muslim culture before the nineteenth century. This article reconsiders Ahmad Khan’s modernism in light of the Persianate modes that he maintained to point out some of the rhetorical inconsistencies of modernist writing, and the historical lacunae which they create.

ʿumar to majlis o dargah meiṉ kāṭī sārī
āk̲h̲rī waqt meiṉ kyā k̲h̲āk vahhābī houṉ ge
They passed their years at gatherings and shrines
What grave wahhābīs can they become at the last minute?1

By the time Sir Sayyid Ahmad Khan published his essay titled Naicar (Nature) in 1879, the ambiguity surrounding this neologism—which he was largely responsible for popularizing within nineteenth-century Indo-Muslim debates on cultural reform—could be driven towards diverse, even contradictory, ends. He begins the essay smartingly:

When good words are used with bad intention, they too can become bad … You are a respected scholar, … why should we doubt anyone’s intention. It is surprising that those people who do not follow the schools (maẕhab) of the four Imams of Sunni jurisprudence (aʾimma-i arbaʿah) should consider being called a non-follower or irreligious (lā-maẕhabī) to be a derogatory statement (gālī) at all.2

Ahmad Khan was incensed that, at the goading of one unnamed scholar, the title of ḥażrat naicariyah (or “Mr. Nature”) was being used in mocking reference to him. Born in Delhi in 1817, Khan had been employed with the East India Company as a small court judge for just under two decades before the 1857 “sepoy rebellion” and subsequent sacking of Delhi by East India Company forces. In response, Khan wrote and published Asbāb-i Bag̲h̲āvat-i Hind (Reasons for the Indian Revolt), a text which both explained the grievances of Indians under British rule and sought to assure British readers that Indian Muslims were not looking to depose British sovereignty. By this point Khan already had numerous publications to his name, including several on Mughal history. He would go on to write widely on strategies for Indo-Muslim cultural reform which included renovating approaches to literature and history writing, adopting new scientific methods of reasoning, and even revising habits of dress and comportment. Perhaps the most important piece of this agenda was the establishment of Aligarh Muslim University, formerly known as the Anglo-Mohammad college. In time, he became one of the most widely known reformers of Indo-Muslim culture; a celebrity that is captured by the title through which he was referred to in his own lifetime, Najm al-hind (“Star of India”). Across the many publications, speeches, and correspondences he authored, Khan used the anglicized term naicar as an allegory for purer conditions of both a desired Indo-Muslim future and an imagined Islamic past.

For the most part, this article is interested in addressing some of the ambiguities and ambivalences of Ahmad Khan’s term naicar. It is helpful, nonetheless, to begin with a shallower understanding of this term as a starting point. Through naicar, Khan gestured to physical—especially geographical, biological, and environmental—phenomena that are clearly not man-made: Nature, in other words. He regarded the observation of natural phenomenon to be a quintessential and timeless approach to knowing God. Furthermore, he insisted that such an environmentally attuned approach was a core feature of ‘pure Islam’ (ṭheṭ islām). Khan accordingly espoused naicar as the ideal model for the cultural regeneration of Indian Muslim communities; how were Indian Muslims to concretely imitate such a model was the more challenging question. While the interlocuters that I focus on in this article express confusion at Khan’s ideas regarding naicar, I would underscore from the outset that a number of influential Islamic thinkers responded favorably to his suggestions. In the work of the contemporary Islamic scholar Fazlur Rahman, for example, nature is offered as one of the eight major themes of the Qurʾān.3 So while the immediate reception of Ahmad Khan’s ideas on naicar may have been rocky, this kernel of his scholarship has proven itself to be resonating and will likely become even more so as environmental crises continue to unfold across South Asia and the Muslim world.

Despite the fact that many Persianate intellectuals of his period shared Ahmad Khan’s aspiration for cultural reform, his coinage of the term naicar was met with mixed reception. The anonymous critic Khan addressed above was not alone in his jibing use of the term.4 Newspapers and magazines from the period, such as Oudh Punch, reveal that in the opinion of several commentators, the movement for naicral shāʿirī (“natural poetry”) which Khan stimulated through the poets Azad and Hali was, simply, bad poetry.5 Other critics were less concerned with the literary facet of the naicar movement which sought to renovate the poetic conventions of this period, and instead characterized its more dangerous aspect as Khan’s naturalist perspectives on interpreting the Qurʾān. In a series of essays titled al-Radd ʿalā al-Dahriyyin (Refutation of the Materialists), the anti-imperialist scholar Jamal al-Din al-Afghani provided what amounts to a lengthy exposé on the naicarīya sect, suggesting implicitly that the real meaning of this term was unknown to the “frivolous” young men that had been “seduce[d]” by it.6 A sense of perplexity pervades the reception of Khan’s term both amongst his contemporaries and, to some degree, in scholarship on the period as well. We might wonder if this confusion would have been less pronounced had Khan chosen a word from Urdu, Arabic, or Persian, rather than English. Why, indeed, did he commit to naicar as the verbal mascot of his broad program of reform despite the fractious relationship between Indian Muslims and British forces? How did Khan expect naicar to be read as the paragon of purity he intended considering this doubtful alliance?

The naicral shāʿirī or natural poetry ‘movement’ has been characterized, understandably, as Anglophilic for the degree to which some of its proponents—Muhammad Husain Azad and Altaf Husain Hali—drew from British sources like Milton and Wordsworth.7 Syed Ahmad Khan, too, explicitly advocated learning from European and British sciences. From a postcolonial perspective, this embracing of British intellectual trends is primed to be read as a blow to the particular blend of Persianate culture that characterized Khan’s native Delhi and in which he was groomed intellectually, socially, and morally; even more so when we consider that the naicral shāʿirī (natural poetry) movement and Khan’s exegetical writings on naicar used this term to imagine a ‘pure’ past and actively characterized their own culture of Persianate writing as decadent and corrupt. Although the relevance of British colonial history to this particular movement is without question, there is a propensity—both in the literary reception of the naicarī debate and in nineteenth-century studies at large—to read colonial exchange as primarily one of colonial dominance and the participation of native intellectuals in these debates as a kind of intellectual capitulation. This article offers an alternate perspective from the default postcolonial prism through which nineteenth-century Urdu and English contact is read and instead frames Ahmad Khan’s scholarship in terms of the syncretic approach that Persianate Islam has been noted for. For example, while Ahmad Khan’s use of the neologism naicar, in favor of Urdu words like fiṭrat and qudrat readily admits to the influence of British writing—and, indeed, the advancement of European sciences—it also reflects the dynamic quality that Persianate culture had of evolving in coordination with its context.8 During the nineteenth century, and particularly in North India, British influence was an increasingly important (though not entirely new) factor in the fluid and multicultural network of Persianate writing.9

While a binary model of colonizer/colonized can be productive in certain debates on postcolonial theory, the cultural essentialism that often underlies such a framework ends up echoing the same narrative of purity/impurity that nineteenth-century reformists employed. In contrast, the “model of frontiers” that Nile Green engages to emphasize the “pluralistic and permutable” quality of Persianate culture is in many ways an antithesis to the paradigms of purity that emerging national movements and purveyors of global Islam deployed.10 To use ‘Persianate’ as a lens through which to understand Ahmad Khan’s scholarship, and nineteenth-century Indo-Muslim reform more broadly, is then to willingly read against the narrative of cultural renewal that he spun.11 The reasons for doing so are simple: naicarī reform performed a rejection of the very matrix of historical and cultural elements that it was formed of and from which there could be no complete ‘return’ to an authentic past. In this regard, it was similar to many neighboring movements that called for newness (jadīdiyat) and/or progress (tarraqī) yet imagined the conditions that would enable vitality and forward movement in a distant and simple past. Even the anonymous critic that Khan gestures to in his aforementioned article held strongly to the historiography of a golden past and immediate collapse. Ahmad Khan intimates his identity when he points out the irony that the scholar in question (along with his “big and little brothers”) who accused him of irreligiosity were themselves not followers of the four major Sunni schools of Islamic jurisprudence, or fiqh. This loaded point was most likely addressed at two figures who aligned themselves with the Ahl-i Ḥadīs movement which pushed against the practice of taqlīd in favor of ijtihād: Sayyid Muhammad Siddiq Hasan Khan (1832–1890), an erudite scholar and Nawab of Bhopal, and his “little brother” Muhammad Husain Batalvi (1840–1920), editor of the Ahl-i Ḥadīs newsletter Ishāʿat us-Sunnat. The practice of taqlīd, or adherence to scholarly/juridical precedence, had been a defining feature of Sunni fiqh (jurisprudence) from as early as the ninth century and provided a system of coherence and incremental reasoning within the four Sunni schools.12 The Ahl-i Ḥadīs bid to initiate more direct readings of the Qurʾān by disestablishing over ten centuries of Islamic jurisprudence was itself based on a narrative of golden past and recent corruption.13 And yet, despite this ideological similarity, central figures in the Ahl-i Ḥadīs movement mocked Ahmad Khan’s use of naicar and in doing so either refused or failed to acknowledge a historiographical consensus that is, in hindsight, easily discernible.

There are a number of ways to explain the Ahl-i Ḥadīs skepticism towards Ahmad Khan’s neologism. On the one hand, despite the fact that Ahmad Khan’s religious views mostly leaned in their own direction, the Ahl-i Ḥadīs thinkers may well have regarded Ahmad Khan primarily as competition in the “marketplace” of religious ideas.14 If so, their incomprehension may have been overperformed for the sake of discrediting a rival thinker. The terms with which Batalvi derides Ahmad Khan’s scholarship, however, also point to what we may think of as a narrative weakness in modernist writing. Modernity, and its attendant style of ‘modernism,’ are predominantly associated with newness, innovation, and the optimism of cultural experimentation. Yet, as Ben Hutchinson notes, modernist commentaries often also characterize their own historical moment with malaise, as if culture has become heavy from too much accumulation, too much ‘tradition.’15 In actuality, these two faces of modernism are almost always invoking one another so that behind the mask of neatly arranged cultural agenda we can find a less secure and more conflictual story. The confusion surrounding Ahmad Khan’s ideas on naicar is a telling example. Despite Khan’s insistence that naicar stood for all things original and pure, his critics would characterize naicar as a flashy and neophilic buzzword. This tension between Khan’s rear-facing ‘naicar’ and its caricature as a fashionable and ‘forward-facing’ one by his critics captures the doublemindedness of modernist writing that Hutchinson points to when he asks (rhetorically) “If literary modernity is forward-thinking, is it because it is backward looking?”16

Between imaging a pure past and strategizing for a pure future, Persianate modernists have left behind especially condemning—and unreliable— narratives of their respective presents. Much of this unreliability stems from the charge of Persianate impurity that, as this article will sketch, was easier to denounce in theory than in practice. This article brings to light the double-mindedness of Ahmad Khan’s work by first reinscribing the Persianate modes that he maintained even as naicar represented a return to ‘original’ Islam and, secondly, by putting it in conversation with its characterization by Ahl-i Ḥadīs critics as a radically inventive approach.17 If by returning to ‘pure Islam’ Ahmad Khan hoped to shed the accretions of false Islamic practice (bidʿah), it is worth noting that his most like-minded contemporaries would characterize his ideas as, ironically, yet more of the same innovation. The first section of this article excavates the Persianate qualities of Ahmad Khan’s scholarship that paradoxically underpin his project of renewal; it focuses especially on the rubric of naicar on account of its centrality to Khan’s vision. The three salient features of Ahmad Khan’s scholarship that this section suggests are best understood when recognized as qualities of Persianate Islam are i.) its multicultural mixing between various languages and faith traditions; ii.) its use of poetic genres alongside the Qurʾān in cultivating pious sensibility; iii.) its emphasis on personal rather than political conduct as the vital takeaway of religious observation. The article concludes by considering how we may reconcile the Ahl-i Ḥadīs rejection of Khan’s vision of naicar considering the broad similarities it had with their own historiography of a return to authentic Islam.

Welcoming Christian and British intellectual trends into the Persianate fold

This article examines a number of excerpts from Khan’s writing that will show that Ahmad Khan often drew explicitly from the Qurʾān and referenced the scholarship of Islamic scholars, most centrally Shah Waliullah, to substantiate his ideas of naicar as an immanent feature of Islam. Yet, it is just as clear that he was not averse to admitting the influence of British trends, either. In its simplest rendering naicar is a transliteration of ‘Nature,’ that centerpiece of British Romanticism which takes nineteenth-century transatlantic intellectual culture by storm. Much like its associations in British Romanticism with organicism, decay, and regeneration, Khan’s naicar is a concept at once concerned with societal collapse and rebirth. Such a conceptualization of nature as the unchanging, baseline truth retains the quality of violent redemption that Romantic historians of Western literary criticism have long read as a biblical ‘structure of feeling’ behind the story of man’s original sin and fall from heaven.18 This narrative structure is, of course, Abrahamic rather than exclusively biblical, and one that religious purists from numerous Islamic movements have turned to in their respective moments of reform. Khan’s naicar, too, was primarily a conceit expressed in terms of Islamic history, despite its obvious borrowing from British Romanticism. In “Naicar,” Khan clarifies this position quite boldly when he characterizes the major prophets of Islam as observers of nature, thus inviting a comparison of their method with his own.

Nature is God’s religion and will always be His religion. The religion of Islam came to break the shackles that people had put on fiṭrat, or nature. It didn’t come to put any new shackles on them … Simply break the exterior shackles and let the pure religion, Nature, God’s religion shine. It will shine and no one’s hiding it will succeed in keeping it hidden.19

We can assume that by the Prophet Muhammad’s breaking of “exterior shackles” (ūpar kī bandishoṉ) Khan meant the established conventions and traditions of his respective time; Khan, like many of his contemporaries, was actively denouncing what he perceived to be a thoughtless adherence to rusūm-o ravāj (“conventions and traditions”) amongst Indian Muslims. Within this argument, naicar indeed functioned as a metaphor for cultural renewal and ‘pure Islam.’

The inclination to read Ahmad Khan’s reformist agenda as envisioning a radical break from Persianate culture is warranted when we consider his vision of an ideal Islamic past alongside his assimilationist attitude towards British culture. Yet, in part for its obvious entanglement with British ideas, it behooves us to read his trope of purity with the proverbial grain of salt that tropic language merits. Especially since Ahmad Khan’s method of scholarship is a fine example of the Persianate model where the grounds for religious and social plurality was, in large part, prepared through the marrying of different textual traditions, both at the level of language and genre. In South Asia this entailed the melding between Sanskrit and Persian writing, as the scholarship of Audrey Truschke and Richard Eaton traces at the ecumenical level, as well as the interplay between regional vernaculars and Persianate culture as Thibaut d’Hubert’s work on Bengali and Purnima Dhawan’s scholarship on Punjabi demonstrate respectively.20 Much of Ahmad Khan’s work exhibits this same literary and linguistic melding, yet this time bringing British and Christian modes into the Persianate fold.

As Ahmad Khan’s Asbāb-i Bag̲h̲āvat-i Hind (Reasons for the Indian Revolt) makes clear, some of the most substantial impressions of British culture came specifically in the form of the Christian practices that British administrators brought with them. In his analysis of the Muslim discontent towards British authority that led to the 1857 revolt, Khan highlights mishanarī (missionary) activity and the tactless habit of British superiors indulging in “religious correspondence” (maẕhabī guftugū) as injurious to Christian-Muslim relations.21 The pamphlet underscores just how unprecedented and unpalatable Christian proselytizing was for many Indian Muslims, including Ahmad Khan. No doubt, missionary activity was threatening in part because it was influential and a number of Islamic (as well as Hindu) practitioners were lured into the practice of public debates through the provocations of Christian Missionaries.22 The mention of naicarīs in texts from this period generally alludes to them as a distinct school of Islamic thought that was represented in public debates on faith alongside others such as Ḥanafīs, Barēlvīs, Ahl-i Ḥadīs etc.23 A denominational understanding of naicarīs was thus hammered out in the oppositional atmosphere that such public debates fostered; its points of convergence and (mostly) divergence with other contemporary movements emerged in a new culture of knowledge transmission which was heavily influenced by Christian proselytizing and British modes of public oratory.

Similarly, while manuscript translations of the Qurʾān into ʿajamī languages (particularly Persian) had a longer history, the missionary production of the bible (and biblical passages) in various vernacular languages was so profuse in the nineteenth century that it set a new standard in the dissemination of religious ideas, which Muslim intellectuals felt compelled to imitate in order keep up with.24 Alongside translations of the Qurʾān into regional vernaculars, the publication of medial texts such as commentaries, glosses, and translations in Urdu flourished, too; these complementary genres aided readers in acquiring deeper understanding and proper recitation of the Qurʾān while also expanding the role of Urdu as a language in which religious debates took place. Through its attitudes towards print medium and translation, Christian proselytizing provided both a model and a motive for Muslim intellectuals to expand the role of vernacular writing and print technologies in religious dissemination. Print journals were especially effective for cultivating the ‘modern’ religious sensibilities of reformists and Pan-Islamists in particular.25 Ahmad Khan’s Tahẕīb ul-ak̲h̲lāq was amongst one of the most influential of such journals within India and while this journal’s primary model remained the Persianate corpus of ak̲h̲lāq writing (polishing of morals/habits) it also borrowed aspects of format and topos from British journals of the period.26

Perhaps the most strikingly multicultural and multifaith text of Khan’s oeuvre is The Mohamedan Commentary on the Holy Bible (Tabyīn al-kalām fī tafsīr al-tawrāt wa-l-injīl ʿalā millat al-Islām), a three-volume study that offers a translation of the Old Testament (Torah) and selections of the New Testament (Gospel of Saint Matthew), as well as general commentary on the history of Christian exegesis.27 Comparative readings across these three ‘revealed’ texts (Torah, Bible, and Qurʾān) have a longer history and, when undertaken by Muslim writers, were often grounded in an acknowledgement of a shared Abrahamic history. While Tabyīn al-kalām certainly follows in this older comparative method, its setting in the context of British Imperialism lends the project an important distinction; Ahmad Khan received sharp condemnation from Muslim contemporaries for his association with Christian writers. To have devoted such innovative scholarly attention to the Bible despite strained Muslim-Christian relations is noteworthy for the period, as well as for the history of this relation in general. Christian Troll’s dense description of the second volume of Tabyīn offers a snapshot of Khan’s careful comparison:

The actual commentary is laid out with the Biblical text printed in the Hebrew original, along with an interlinear Urdu translation. This is followed by an English rendering. The opposite column contains parallel texts from the Qurʾan and Hadith in the Arabic original, with again an Urdu interlinear translation and a subsequent English rendering. The margin indicates parallel references from the Bible, Qurʾan and Hadith.28

This is to say nothing of Khan’s commentary on the bible itself which was separate and copious. By applying Islamic methods of reasoning to ascertain the “reliability and authenticity” of different sections of the Bible, Khan’s Tabyīn offered Persianate intellectuals a guide for thinking about how to safely integrate Christian ideas into Islamic reasoning.29 We might even say that in doing so it offered Muslim thinkers renewed agency in navigating the unavoidable influx of Christian influence.

Lastly, though centrally for this article, Khan’s earliest employment of naicar as a term also emerges out of his engagement with the Bible.30 While David Lelyveld’s book chapter “Naicarī Naicar” offers a focused view of the multifaith and comparative dimensions of Khan’s anglicized term, for the most part, scholarship on the multicultural dimension of naicarī discourse emphasizes the literary activities of the naicral shāʿirī movement and its reception of British literary tastes and genre conventions.31 In fact, one of the most intriguing aspects of Ahmad Khan’s reception is that criticism on naicarī discourse tends to focus on it either as a literary phenomenon or a religious argument, despite the fact that Ahmad Khan clearly deployed the same term to induce textual reform on both fronts. For example, Frances Pritchett’s study Nets of Awareness examines how the naicral shāʿirī movement initiated renovations in the practice of metaphor and poetic themes; it focuses on the scholarship of Azad and Hali, rather than Sayyid Ahmad Khan. Tahir Kamran’s article “Urdu Migrant Literati and Lahore’s Culture” offers insights on the mushāʿira (poetic recitals) organized on the theme of naicar at the behest of Ahmad Khan.32 Neither of these studies concerns itself with the theological front of naicar. Alternatively, David Lelyveld’s scholarship has focused on the rubric of naicar in Ahmad Khan’s writing on religious reform, most notably in his tafsīr (commentary on the Qurʾān). Christian Troll’s study Sayyid Ahmad Khan: A Reinterpretation of Muslim Theology notes that several historians and social commentators have credited Ahmad Khan for the transformation of Urdu prose writing towards a simpler style, yet Troll’s own research focuses almost exclusively on Khan’s work on Islamic theology.33 This bifurcated approach is understandable given the overwhelming scope of naicarī writing. Yet, treating the aesthetic and religious spheres of Khan’s reformist agenda as separate wings does not help in simplifying the unwieldy trope of naicar; if anything, it retains the lacunae of nineteenth-century reformist writing that were far better at imagining the abandonment of Persianate modes than it was at actually performing them. The next section of this article addresses how Khan’s ideas on naicar maintained the traditional view of adab as a disciplinary practice that bridged the contemporary division between literature and religion on account of its equal interest in morality and aesthetics. It draws the literary and exegetical sides of naicar together, again, to render the Persianate modes that Khan’s scholarship maintained, despite its oratory of returning to a pure Islam.

Resituating naicarī reform within the ‘adab/akhlāq’ complex

The relative inattention towards Ahmad Khan’s ‘literary’ pursuits in academic scholarship is understandable given that much of his interest in the social utility of poetry was outsourced to other writers. Yet, while Ahmad Khan did not publish poetry himself, he was keenly invested in harnessing its social power, especially in the cause of the ‘refinement of morals,’ or tahẕīb ul-ak̲h̲lāq. He accordingly advocated for a ‘naicral poʿitrī’ (natural poetry) in his journal of the same name (Tahẕīb ul-Ak̲h̲lāq).34 And although for his own part Ahmad Khan deployed naicar primarily as an allegory for ‘pure Islam,’ his mentorship of Muhammad Hussain Azad and Altaf Hussain Hali—the two most prominent figures of the naicral shāʿirī movement—had momentous consequences for the fields of Urdu poetry and literary history.

If we compare Syed Ahmad’s writings on naicar with Hali and Azad’s, the primary parallel which emerges across their work is the use of naicar as an allegory for cultural decline, though they each employ it to slightly different ends. In particular, the idealization of purity, originality, and simplicity is mobilized by each of these writers at both the level of historiographical content as well as written style. For example, in his taẕkirah (biography/literary history) Āb-i Ḥayāt (Water of Life), Muhammad Hussain Azad would lament that it was impossible to write history in Urdu because of the language’s exaggerated and ornamental style, which he refers to (predictably) as “the style of Persians.”35 Hali, too, would encourage readers of Madd-o jazr-i Islam (“The Ebb and Flow of Islam”) to tolerate the “poem’s dry plainness, since it lacked poetic artifice and ‘contain[ed] only historical material or translations of Quranic verses or of Hadith, or an absolutely exact picture of the present state of the community.’”36 Like Ahmad Khan, Azad located the conditions for natural poetry in ‘simpler’ historic times when verbal expression was more responsive to its Indic geography; the conflation of these two conditions was met, in Azad’s estimation, in Bhraj poetry. Hali’s musaddas, too, would employ the modernist historiography of civilizational rise and fall—closer to Ahmad Khan’s vision of authenticity—and would epitomize cultural freshness with scenes of Arabian deserts growing green under the influence of the Prophet Muhammad. The suggestion inherent within both of these historiographies, then, is that an ornamental writing style obscures the reading of history and that a purposeful writing of history is necessary for cultural revival; clear and plain writing was determined to be instrumental for societal regeneration. While Khan’s own scholarship focused more on textual consumption (i.e., Qurʾanic interpretation) than textual production, it is evident that Azad and Hali inherited their respective historiographic understanding of naicar from Ahmad Khan. Considered together, the historiographies offered by Hali and Azad exhibit how Khan’s vision for reform depended on a multi-part shift within a wide eco-system of Persianate genres.

Khan’s mobilization of naicar on the ‘two’ fronts of poetry and Qurʾanic interpretation remind us that they were—for the greater part of the nineteenth century and the specific audiences captured by the term ‘Persianate’—still very much a shared front with the shared aim of cultivating respected persons. As Mana Kia has deftly argued, the “adab/akhlaq complex” which played a formative role in providing the moral infrastructure through which gentlemanly sociability was construed, bridged the contemporary divide between aesthetics and ethics.37 This happened both at the level of individual texts like the Gulistān and Bustān and as a broader method of reading in which comparatively light and entertaining genres, like ḥikāyāt (anecdotes/tales), were counterbalanced with more the explicitly pedantic texts of naṣīḥat (advice).38 The Qurʾān’s position within this constellation of texts on conduct was inarguably central and (importantly) was read in combination with a wide range of ‘profane’ genres including poetry, mirrors for princes, philosophical treatises, etc.39 Reframing ostensibly secular genres as Islamic has also been essential in explaining the weighty role of love poetry, particularly ghazals, in Sufi writing.40 And, as William Chittick has reinforced, the theme of love was a central theological conceit through which the Qurʾān and ḥadīs were deciphered by scholars, philosophers, and mystics during the Persianate period.41 Study upon study has demonstrated that Persianate literariness and Persianate Islam were mutually reinforcing spheres with significant, if not complete, overlap. Just so, Khan envisioned the reform of poetic practice and Qurʾanic interpretation together and through the shared rubric of naicar precisely because he continued to employ Persianate frames and methods of Islamic observation.42

As a final example of the Persianate modes that Khan maintained, I turn to what we may describe as his ‘apoliticism,’ though this is (admittedly) an insufficient descriptor for an acutely consequential quality of his work. In part, Kia’s scholarship on adab and akhlāq maps the emphasis that Persianate Islamic practice placed on personal conduct. To be sure, ‘personal’ here is by no means synonymous with individualistic or asocial. To the contrary, the cultivation of ‘proper/good form’ that adab entailed was consciously rooted in the social requirements of life. Yet, the particular contours of sociability that it stressed were—we can cautiously agree—different to those that many varieties of ‘political Islam’ have prioritized since their emergence through the twentieth century. It is this feature of Ahmad Khan’s work, perhaps more so than any other, of which the Persianate lens can offer a more charitable reading in comparison to the postcolonial approach.

Religious mysticism and political quietism

As this section will outline, the political ambiguity of Ahmad Khan’s reformist project retained something of the neo-platonic and mystical notions of God that had been customary in Persianate Islam and which resurface especially in his writing on naicar.43 The dualistic understanding of power (and truth) that Sufi institutions inculcated provided a framework for religious pluralism by neutralizing the juridical dimension of Islam and, with it, the potential conflation of religious and political duty.44 Khan’s apoliticism stemmed from this very distinction between earthly and religious power. As Saïd Arjomand’s scholarship tracks, the spread of Islam was carried out in large part by Persianate institutions that composed a style of sovereignty which counterbalanced the juridical tradition of Islam with a Persianate model of ‘kingship;’ the latter, importantly, holding the crucial reigns on worldly matters. This model was especially effective in governing multicultural societies that were comprised of significant non-Muslim populations as it diplomatically contained the religious authority of the ʿulamāʾ, and instead developed an intimate (though politically tame) dynamic with Sufi establishments.45 The rule of the fourteenth-century Mughal emperor Akbar is often represented as the crowning moment of this syncretic and culturally responsive style.46 Akbar’s court-sponsored unitarian religion of dīn-i elāhī (divine religion) and its keystone principle of ṣulḥ-i kull (universal conciliation) provided a “unified cultural framework for [an] ethno-religiously plural empire.”47

Especially in its earlier years, Ahmad Khan’s writing reflects the religiously liberal and culturally accommodating approach that was central to Persianate Islam. His admiration for Akbar and his administration of a thriving empire is exemplified by Ahmad Khan’s translation of Āʾīn-i akbarī into Urdu; this was one of Ahmad Khan’s first published texts and while his explicit gestures to Akbar recede thereafter, this early interest shows the importance that Khan placed on successful Muslim leadership. Compared to his contemporaries, Khan’s project was exceptional not for its concern with Muslim sovereignty, but rather his understanding of successful sovereignty which depended, in his eyes, on a leadership educated in the disciplines of the day. Where, for example, the Ahl-i Ḥadīs were under heavy scrutiny by British officials for potentially stimulating sentiments for an uprising, and other critics like Jamal al-Din al-Afghani were actively publishing anticolonial sentiment, Khan encouraged Indian Muslims to focus on learning from Western societies. In other words, as varieties of ‘Political Islam’ were gaining traction amongst cosmopolitan Muslims, Khan maintained a political quietism that had more in keeping with the varieties of Persianate Islam that had pervaded India for centuries. Barbara Metcalf pithily captures this feature of Khan’s intellectual persona when she writes that “[i]n this view of good government [Ahmad Khan] was still a Mughal.”48

To explain Ahmad Khan’s political cooperation with the British crown as a kind of expediency alone, ignores how rooted this was in an approach to Islamic reasoning that retained mystical elements even into the late nineteenth century. Ahmad Khan might well have balked at the suggestion that his writing had such a mystical color to it seeing as his effort was overwhelmingly in the direction of offering rational and scientific explanation to the Qurʾān.49 Nevertheless, in the case of his writing on naicar, mysticism is a useful descriptor for pointing to some meaningful paradoxes in Khan’s work which stemmed in part from his Sufi intellectual inheritance. We see, for example, a glimmer of the neo-platonic thrust behind Khan’s conception of naicar at the very beginning of his publication A Series of Essays on the Life of Mohammed and Subjects Subsidiary Thereto.50 Khan explains the “pantheistic” perspective of “Hinduism” by quoting Alexander Pope’s poem “Essay on Man:” “All are but parts of one stupendous whole / Whose body nature is, and God the soul ; / That chang’d through all, and yet in all the same / Great in the earth, as in the ethereal frame.”51 Although he initially offers Pope’s pantheistic ‘Nature’ as a parallel to the “the Hindus in their 330 millions of minor deities,” Khan follows the poem immediately with the assurance that “Islam [too] represent[s] God to have said, ‘I am with each individual in the appearance which he forms of me in his own mind.’”52 Nature, thus, serves as a binding motif between various religions in general, and between Islam and Christianity in particular, with Hinduism acting as a mediating conduit. While naicar is a seemingly marginal topic for A Series of Essays on the Life of Mohammed, its brief mention instates the shared spiritual grounds between various religious traditions. In doing so, naicar performs an important diplomatic function for a text which was itself prompted by tense relations between Christians and Muslims.53 Much in the Akbarian fashion, Khan prepares the ground for ethno-religious pluralism by appealing to readers’ impression of divine transcendence.

In his published response to his Ahl-i Ḥadīs critics, naicar appears neither as a novel concept introduced by British colonizers, nor as one newly minted in the fires of proto-national awakening.54 Rather, nature is as eternal as God’s religion (khudā ka maẕhab) and a great deal of the essay is spent re-narrating passages from the Qurʾān in which God explains His presence in terms of nature: “I am He who turns day into night and night into day, I bring life from death and death from life.”55 What is striking about the articulation of this response is that the word from the Qurʾān which he translates as naicarfiṭrat—is also a perfectly common word in Urdu. Why he chooses to use this anglicized term in place of fiṭrat, is not entirely clear, yet David Lelyveld suggests that Ahmad Khan’s “decision to use the English word may have signaled his affiliation to British intellectual hegemony and to the present over the past, but the underlying concept owed at least as much to the Islamic tradition, which, like the European, reached back to Plato and Aristotle.”56 Khan’s directness in employing anglophone terminology—and in doing so admitting the influence that British discourses of Nature had on him—also suggests a reluctance to consciously territorialize a concept so classically sublime. Nature was not, in his view, something any individual human or society could claim just as God Himself could not be constricted to the province of a single religious tradition. He writes:

Shah Waliullah ṣāḥib … has translated “the nature of Allah” as the religion of God. Just so, the religion of our God is our religion. God is neither hindu, nor a traditional muslim (ʿurfī musalmān), nor a follower (muqallid), nor an atheist, nor jewish, nor christian. He is a naicarī through and through. He calls Himself a naicarī. What could make us prouder then, to also be a naicarī?57

The mutuality Khan imagines between Hindus, Muslims, Jews, Christians, and Atheists through naicar has a distinctly “Persianate imprint.”58 It nominally rejects any preferential status for “Muslims” as a gesture of earthly goodwill between men and frames this renunciation as a kind of radical religious devotion. Such an articulation of sympathy patently echoes similar renunciations of Muslim identity in Sufi poetry. The eighteenth-century Punjabi poet Bullah Shah, for example, employed a string of negations—“I am not the Believer in the mosque! / Nor am I in Infidel rituals! / Nor am I pure amongst the impure! / Nor am I Moses, nor am I Pharoah!”—in his celebrated verse “Bullah, Who am I?” that is identical to Khan’s articulation of God as “neither hindu, nor a traditional muslim, nor a follower.”59 It is no mere coincidence that Ahmad Khan’s writing rings lightly of these refrains; he came of age against a Sufi background that actively promoted moral ambiguity and religious syncretism through poetic texts that synergized between Persian, Arabic, and Indic traditions.60 These brief moments of interfaith reasoning are easy to dismiss as either simply rhetorical or else incongruous to Khan’s broader vision considering how invested his intellectual milieu was in notions of purity. But, in fact, a neo-platonic understanding of divinity suffuses his writings on naicar and provided the moral flexibility for religious cooperation. In this vein, again, Khan’s naicar remained strikingly reminiscent of the varieties of Persianate Islam that had characterized Indo-Muslim poetic culture.

Given the many ways that Ahmad Khan sustained the norms of Persianate culture, it seems fitting to recognize his ideal of purity as, at least partly, suspect. But of course, ‘purity’ was not Ahmad Khan’s ideal alone; it was a feature of the zeitgeist and was so embedded in textual narratives of the period that recovering the unconsciously tropic quality of this term is fundamental to regaining a historical view of nineteenth-century India and its various reformist movements. The final section of this article briefly considers the Ahl-i Ḥadīs characterization of naicar as a dangerously innovative idea, to remind us of the Janus-faced quality of modernist historiography. Although Ahmad Khan acknowledged the elements of originality in his program and spoke of it as a “new method to prove the same truth,” this nuanced point about using new methods to prove old truths was rejected and/or missed by his (arguably) most like-minded critics.61 What we may glean from this rebuff, nonetheless, are the impossible terms of ‘authentic Islam’ that modernists demanded of themselves and each other.

Origin, originality, and tradition

Of the many religious figures and high-profile scholars that censured Ahmad Khan, Siddiq Hasan Khan is an especially useful intellectual adversary against which to read the former’s ideas on naicar.62 Both wielded political and social capital in ways that necessitated their cooperation with British governance even as their primary interest in Muslim self-governance was made public. Yet Ahmad Khan’s interest in the realm of textual practice (tafsīr, literary history, and poetry writing) appears amateur in comparison to Hasan Khan. With over 200 publications in Urdu, Arabic, and Persian to his name, including multiple taẕkirahs, a bayāż (Ṭarāz-i ʿishq), and several texts on eloquence and rhetoric (balāgha), ḥadīs, tafsīr (commentary), fiqh (jurisprudence), and tārīkh (history), Hasan Khan was a pillar of learning, especially in the very territories of poetry and Qurʾanic hermeneutics that Ahmad Khan’s ideas on naicar played with.63 The doctrinal commonalities between them were so strong that both Troll and Metcalf suggest that Ahmad Khan was essentially following the Ahl-i Ḥadīs credo himself; like the Ahl-i Ḥadīs, he discouraged the practice of taqlīd in favor of ijtihād, and saw himself as following in the theological footsteps of Shah Walliullah.64 Yet, Hassan Khan’s rejection of naicar could not have been more acerbically phrased. In An Interpretation of Wahhabism (tarjumān-i vahhābiyat)—a publication that held vital political and personal consequences for him—Hasan Khan voiced a scathing opinion of the naicarīs.65 After suggesting that the fracturing of the Muslim polity was one sign of the end of times, Hasan Khan wrote that naicarīs were the chief cause of this dissension and that they could hardly be called Muslim at all.

In the Ahl-i Ḥadīs newsletter Ishāʿat us-Sunnat, Hassan Khan’s “younger brother” Muhammad Husain Batalvi took a more ridiculing approach in his attack on naicar when he portrayed Ahmad Khan’s employment of the term to be hollow, repetitive, and—above all—confusing.66 He begins by airing his frustration that Ahmad Khan had refused to engage in debate with a group of Islamic scholars from the city of Puna and in doing so, escaping the opportunity for “iṣlāḥ (correction):”67

He just says his part and doesn’t listen to anyone else. He blows his natural spell [naicral afsūn phūnk deitē haiṉ]. And to have such a spell cast on you leaves your immunity against destruction powerless … He runs away from the ifs and buts and whos and whats of debate, and wishes to say to us ‘stop your raag from the dark ages (daqyānūsī rāg) and listen to my new naicarī-metered prelude (naicerā ragan ālāp suno). What am I saying in my passion [junūn]? God willing no one will understand.’68

Batalvi’s employment of naicar as a slippery adjective tells us nothing about the idea itself. For example, in a later passage he refers to Ahmad Khan as a naicarī wrestler (naicarī pahlwān), no doubt to connote the skirmish of theological debates that Batalvi himself participated in widely. If anything, such usage seems driven to suggest a certain emptiness behind the initially glamorous phrase. It is as enchanting yet false as a spell (afsūn), sonorous and trance-inducing as music (rāg), yet only gestural as the prelude (ālāp) of a musical performance is. Batalvi’s description sits well with another famous depiction of Ahmad Khan that was published in Oudh Punch on August 4, 1881. The caption reads naicarī jōgī (The Yogi of Nature) and Ahmad Khan is pictured as a snake charmer, lulling multiples snakes—each with the word ‘canda’ or ‘donations’ written on their heads—with the music from his bīn.69 Lastly, and perhaps most ungenerously, Batalvī characterizes Ahmad Khan’s discourse on naicar as driven by an aversion to old things and a taste for the new; in other words, Batalvi associates Ahmad Khan’s reformism simply with the youthful face of modernism.

By failing or refusing to acknowledge the association of naicar with origin, Batalvi both invalidates Khan’s many bids to instantiate his work with the Qurʾān, and denies the similarities between their respective views. The rejection is unsurprising considering that the Ahl-i Hadith butted heads with almost everyone that was not from their own small but cohesive group, including other reformist groups such as the Deobandis. Even as they denounced the fracturing between Muslims and ostensibly returned to authentic Islam in part to redress sources of religious dissention, their manner of liaising with other Muslim thinkers was so combative that Metcalf has described it as an “embattled” style.70 She writes:

Among the Ahl-i Hadis an urgent quest for a single standard of religious interpretation … formed the core of an orientation both religious and psychological. It was their horror of disorder that drove them to desire a true and common standard on which all Muslims could unite. Ironically, in so doing they created the dissensions on which, in fact, they throve. But the desire for unity was their goal, and to achieve it they insisted on a return to the norms of the original hadis.

This article suggests that the inability of the Ahl-i Ḥadīs to cohere with other Muslims—even those who largely shared their desire for a “return to … the original” Islam—stems in some part from the challenge that untangling newness (originality) from authenticity (origin) posed for these reformers. Even as Aziz Ahmad’s description of the Ahl-i Ḥadīs as “neo-traditionalists” captures this bi-directionality, it feels imprecise to regard their radical ‘return’ as “traditional.”71 It was, instead, the Persianate modes that these reformers could not shake off, even as they tried, that were properly traditional. To consider Ahmad Khan as a Persianate modernist—alongside his already canonized reception as an Islamic modernist—as this article does, is to underscore the practical and sometimes unconscious continuities between Persianate Islam and its modernist offspring, despite the history of antagonism between them.

Acknowledgments

My thanks, first and foremost, to Alexander Jabbari, Maryam Fatima, and Mehtap Ozdemir whose attentive feedback shifted this paper almost entirely and for the better. I’m also thankful to Aamir Mufti, Sohaib Beg, and Ali Altaf Mian for the various forms of assistance and feedback they have each given me in the writing of this article, across its many iterations.

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1

The translation here is my own. I have chosen to displace a more straightforward rendering to heighten the sense of irony in Allahabadi’s couplet. A more literal translation of this couplet might be “After having spent their youth at the majlis and the shrine, what kind of empty wahhābīs do they hope to become at the last minute?” There is, however, a meaningful double-entendre in the phrase ‘k̲h̲āk vahhābī’ as ‘k̲h̲āk’ (dust) also connotes that these figures are so old and near to death that they are headed to the grave where they will become dust. Since the practice of grave-visitation and shrine culture amongst Sufis was a major—if not the primary—point of theological contestation between ‘Sufis’ and ‘Wahhābīs’ (both being broad and vague categories here), Allahabadi’s couplet depicts the Sufi-turned-‘Wahhābī’ as becoming anti-grave just as they are headed to the grave. In his time, there were plenty such figures including, as I sketch in this article, Syed Ahmad Khan himself.

Akbar Allahabadi, Kulliyāt-i Akbar Allāhābādī: Maʿrūf Bih, Lisān al-ʿAṣr (Lahore: Sang-i Mīl Pablīkeshanz, 2008), 579.

2

Sayyid Ahmad Khan, “Naicar,” in Intik̲h̲āb-i Mażāmīn-i Sar Sayyid, ed. Anwar Siddiqi (New Delhi: Maktaba Jamia Limited, 1972), 126.

3

Fazlur Rahman, Major Themes of the Qurʾan, 2nd ed. (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2009), 65–80.

4

A whole body of critics derided the presumed Islamic un-orthodoxy that Ahmad Khan proposed under the banner of naicar, as if to identify this term as the heart of his political ideology. Maulvi ʿAli Bakhsh, for example, reportedly also disapproved of the “millat-i naicariya.” In August 1881, the Urdu satirical magazine Oudh Punch published a biting cartoon that depicts Sayyid Ahmad as a snake charmer with the caption reading “Naicarī Jōgī” (Nature Yogi). In many of these critiques Ahmad Khan’s rhetoric of naicar is depicted as simultaneously insidious and ridiculous. See David Lelyveld, “Naicari Nature: Sir Sayyid Ahmad Khan and the Reconciliation of Science, Technology, and Religion,” in The Cambridge Companion to Sayyid Ahmad Khan, ed. Yasmin Saikia and Raisur Rahman (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2020), 69–86.

5

Maryam Sikander, “Oudh Punch (1877–1915): Satire and Parody in the Colonial Contact Zone” (PhD diss., SOAS University of London, 2021).

6

Jamal al-Din al-Afghani, “The Truth about the Neicheri Sect and an Explanation of the Neicheris [‘Refutation of the Materialists’],” in An Islamic Response to Imperialism: Political and Religious Writing of Sayyid Jamal ad-Din al-Afghani, trans. Nikki Keddie and Hamid Algar (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1968), 177.

7

Frances W. Pritchett, Nets of Awareness: Urdu Poetry and Its Critics (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1994), 140–54.

8

This is not to suggest that Khan never used the Urdu terms but simply that his use of naicar was so systematic that it became the primary signifier for this line of thought in his work, as is especially evidenced by the focus that his critics (Afghani, in particular) give this term.

9

For an account of pre-nineteenth-century British presence in Mughal India, see Jonathan Gil Harris, The First Firangis: Remarkable Stories of Heroes, Healers, Charlatans, Courtesans & Other Foreigners Who Became Indian (New Delhi: Aleph Book Company, 2016); for other studies which sketch the particular situation of British writing within Persianate culture during the nineteenth century, see Michael H. Fischer, “Conflicting Meanings of Persianate Culture: An Intimate Example from Colonial India and Britain,” in The Persianate World: The Frontiers of a Eurasian Lingua Franca, ed. Nile Green (Oakland: University of California Press, 2019); Humberto Garcia, England Re-Oriented: How Central and South Asian Travelers Imagined the West, 1750–1857 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2020); Alexander Jabbari,

“Saʿdi’s Gulistan in British India,” in The Routledge Handbook of Persian Literary Translation, ed. Pouneh Shabani-Jadidi, Patricia J. Higgins, and Michelle Quay, 1st ed. (London: Routledge, 2022), 131–42; Bruce Maxwell’s scholarship on Persian language pedagogy at colonial universities in India also illuminates an important area of Anglo-Persianate overlap. See Bruce Gregory Maxwell, “Persian Studies in India and the Colonial Universities, 1857–1947,” Iranian Studies 55, no. 3 (2022): 719–40.

10

Nile Green, “Introduction: The Frontiers of the Persianate World (ca. 800–1900),” in The Persianate World: The Frontiers of a Eurasian Lingua Franca, ed. Nile Green (Oakland: University of California Press, 2019), XV.

11

Khurram Hussain offers an argument that is similar in spirit but opposite in its presentation when he suggests that “[the] religion that Sayyid Ahmad Khan wants to preserve … is neither the Islam of the ʿulama nor that of the Sufis. It is the religious dialectic of harmonization; it is Islam as critique.” Where Hussain rejects both Persianate/Sufi Islam and the Islam of a nineteenth-century modernizing ʿulamāʾ as acceptable categories through which to understand Ahmad Khan’s vision, I suggest that by reinscribing the sufiānā qualities to Ahmad Khan’s otherwise overtly reformist prose, we can bring to light a sobering compromise between these two ideological fronts. See Khurram Hussain, Islam as Critique: Sayyid Ahmad Khan and the Challenge of Modernity, Islam of the Global West (New York [NY]: Bloomsbury Academic, 2019), 68.

12

Taqlīd may be translated as ‘conformity’ and refers to the practice of following juridical precedence. Ijtihād, on the other hand, can be explained as ‘independent reasoning’ or ‘interpretation.’

13

See Barbara D. Metcalf, Islamic Revival in British India: Deoband, 1860–1900 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2014), 254; Aziz Ahmad, Islamic Modernism in India and Pakistan, 1857–1964 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1970), 115.

14

Nile Green’s framework of a religious marketplace is especially helpful for understanding the “competitive logic” that undergirded the interactions between different religious groups/movements—or “firms” to use Green’s heuristic. See Nile Green, Bombay Islam: The Religious Economy of the West Indian Ocean, 1840–1915 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011), 20.

15

While Hutchinson offers belatedness as an “alternate paradigm” to the more common face of modernist writing as a youthful narrative of “making things new,” his framework is so fitting for a discussion of Persianate modernity that it hardly feels like an ‘alternate.’ The term mutaʾakhkhirīn, which we could translate as ‘the moderns’ and, which was used widely in Arabic and Persian historical writing in the nineteenth century, is a cognate of ākhir (the end/the last) and frames ‘the moderns’ or ‘modern times’ as the last/late ones. One way to conceive of Persianate modernism, then, is as the body of writing that emerged throughout the Persianate ecumene expressing this sense of overaccumulation, fatigue, and impending collapse. Ben Hutchinson, Lateness and Modern European Literature (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016), 1–31. For more on the use of mutaʾakhkhirīn as a designate for moderns, see Alexander Jabbari, “The Making of Modernity in Persianate Literary History,” Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East (2016): 418–34.

16

Hutchinson, Lateness and Modern European Literature, 4.

17

While defining this background as Persianate—as opposed to Indic, Indian, or even Islamicate—has some limitations, it accurately foregrounds multicultural and multilingual aspects, and gestures to a geography of intellectual exchange that also spanned well beyond South Asia and the Middle East. The demographic limitations it retains are also salient; Persianate culture was especially moored by texts and textual practice and, as such, was the province of elite, lettered persons, and especially men. See Green, “Introduction,” in The Persianate World, 2.

18

M.H. Abrams outlines how a spiritualized portrayal of Nature allegorized the Christian redemption story of man’s fall from a unified state in Paradise, to the division and chaos on earth, and back again towards a more perfect union; Ahmad Khan’s naicar is essentially that same Abrahamic trope, though rooted more consciously in Islamic history and writing. M.H. Abrams, Natural Supernaturalism: Tradition and Revolution in Romantic Literature (New York: Norton, 1973), 154–63.

19

Khan, Intik̲h̲āb-i Mażāmīn-i Sar Sayyid, 27.

20

See Audrey Truschke, Culture of Encounters: Sanskrit at the Mughal Court (New York: Columbia University Press, 2016); Richard Maxwell Eaton, India in the Persianate Age, 1000–1765 (Oakland [CA]: University of California Press, 2019); Thibaut d’Hubert, “Persian at the Court or in the Village: The Elusive Presence of Persian in Bengal,” in The Persianate World, 93–113; Purnima Dhawan, “Persian Scholarly Networks in Mughal Punjab,” in The Persianate World, 159–175.

21

Syed Ahmad Khan, Asbāb-i Bag̲h̲āvat-i Hind (Karachi: Urdu Academy Sindh, 1957), 119–25.

22

Metcalf, Islamic Revival in British India, 218.

23

Metcalf, Islamic Revival in British India, 343n66.

24

Christian Wilhelm Troll, and Syed Ahmad Khan, Sayyid Ahmad Khan: A Reinterpretation of Muslim Theology (New Delhi: Vikas Publishing House, 1978), 65. See also Nile Green, Terrains of Exchange: Religious Economies of Global Islam (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014) 67–103; Francis Robinson, “Technology and Religious Change: Islam and the Impact of Print,” Modern Asian Studies 27, no. 1 (1993): 229–51.

25

See Green, Terrains of Exchange, 67–103.

26

Margrit Pernau, “The Virtuous Individual and Social Reform: Debates among North Indian Urdu Speakers,” Civilizing Emotions: Concepts in Nineteenth-Century Asia and Europe, ed. Margrit Pernau and Jordheim Helge (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015), 170.

27

See Christian W. Troll et al., The Gospel According to Sayyid Ahmad Khan (1817–1898): An Annotated Translation of Tabyīn al-Kalām (Part 3) (Leiden: Brill, 2020).

28

Troll, Sayyid Ahmad Khan: A Reinterpretation of Muslim Theology, 37–38.

29

Troll, Sayyid Ahmad Khan: A Reinterpretation of Muslim Theology, 71.

30

David Lelyveld, “Naicari Nature: Sir Sayyid Ahmad Khan and the Reconciliation of Science, Technology, and Religion,” in The Cambridge Companion to Sayyid Ahmad Khan, ed. Yasmin Saikia and Raisur Rahman (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2020), 72.

31

See Pritchett, Nets of Awareness; Pasha M. Khan, The Broken Spell: Indian Storytelling and the Romance Genre in Persian and Urdu (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2019); Guriqbal Sahota, “A Literature of the Sublime in Late Colonial India: Romanticism and the Epic Form in Modern Hindi and Urdu” (PhD diss., University of Chicago, 2006).

32

Tahir Kamran, “Urdu Migrant Literati and Lahore’s Culture,” Journal of Punjab Studies 19, no. 2 (2012): 173–92.

33

Troll, Sayyid Ahmad Khan: A Reinterpretation of Muslim Theology, 14.

34

Pritchett, Nets of Awareness, 38.

35

Muḥammad Ḥusain Azad, Āb-e Hayāt: Shaping The Canon of Urdu Poetry, trans. Frances W. Pritchett and Shamsur Rahman Faruqi (New Delhi; New York: Oxford University Press, 2001), 83–84:

“Our people of ‘delicate thought’ and subtle sight began to create idea upon idea … And it came about that if they try they can write, in the style of Persians, … But they can’t write about a national affair or a historical revolution in such a way that readers could learn how the event took place and how it reached its outcome.”

36

Christopher Shackle and Javed Majeed, Hali’s Musaddas: The Flow and Ebb of Islam (Delhi; New York: Oxford University Press, 1997), 13.

37

Mana Kia, “Adab as Literary Form and Social Conduct: Reading the Gulistan in Late Mughal India,” in “No Tapping Around Philology”: A Festschrift in Celebration and Honor of Wheeler McIntosh Thackston Jr.’s 70th Birthday, ed. Alireza Korangy and Daniel J. Sheffield (Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz, 2014), 282.

38

Kia, “Adab as Literary Form and Social Conduct,” 282–85.

39

Nuha Al-Shaʾar, “Introduction: The Relation of Adab to the Qurʾan: Conceptual and Historical Framework,” in The Qurʾan and Adab: The Shaping of Literary Traditions in Classical Islam, ed. Nuha Al-Shaʾar (Oxford; London: Oxford University Press, 2017), 1–60.

40

Shahab Ahmed’s provocative description of Hafiz as the most widely canonized Islamic writer has, for example, initiated a renewed and productive discussion on the notion of the Islamic. See Shahab Ahmed, What Is Islam? The Importance of Being Islamic (Princeton; Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2016), 31; See also Ali Altaf Mian, “Surviving Desire: Reading Ḥāfiz̤ in Colonial India,” Journal of Urdu Studies 2, no. 1 (May 19, 2021): 31–67.

41

William C. Chittick, Divine Love: Islamic Literature and the Path to God (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2013).

42

Ali Altaf Mian offers another example of this continuation of Persianate literary modes within reformist Islamic practice in his article on the Deobandi scholar Ashraf Ali Thanavi’s (1863–1943) commentary on Hafiz’s Divan, ʿIrfān-i Ḥāfiz̤. See Mian, “Surviving Desire,” 31–67.

43

For a fuller discussion of the influence of Neoplatonism in Sufi scholarship, see Stefan Sperl and Yorgos Dedes, “Introduction: ‘A Thing All Living Faces’,” in Faces of the Infinite: Neoplatonism and Poetry at the Confluence of Africa, Asia and Europe, ed. Stefan Sperl and Yorgos Dedes (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2022), 1–50.

44

Saïd Amir Arjomand, “Persianate Islam and Its Regional Spread,” in Religions, Nations, and Transnationalism in Multiple Modernities, ed. Patrick Michel et al. (New York: Palgrave Macmillan US, 2017), 76; see also Ahmed, What is Islam, 25.

45

This dualistic approach was shaped fundamentally by the Timurid conquest of Baghdad and subsequent dissolution of the Caliphate. Persian language texts were mobilized in defense of kingship as a form of divinely ordained political authority that was in conversation with, yet separate from, the religious authority of the ʿulamāʾ. See Arjomand, “Persianate Islam and Its Regional Spread,” 77–79.

46

For example, Shahab Ahmed’s book, What is Islam?, argues for the diversity and flexibility of Islam as a lived practice and features an image of Akbar’s coin as the single illustration for its cover page.

47

Arjomand, “Persianate Islam and Its Regional Spread,” 79.

48

Metcalf, Islamic Revival in British India, 304.

49

Simon Fuchs, in fact, explains Syed Ahmad Khan’s rejection of taqlīd as motivated primarily by a “quest for certainty.” See Simon Wolfgang Fuchs, “Casting Aside the Clutches of Conjecture: The Striving for Religious Certainty at Aligarh,” Islamic Law and Society 27, no. 4 (April 28, 2020): 386–410. See also Thomas Bauer, “In Quest of Certainty,” in A Culture of Ambiguity: An Alternative History of Islam, trans. Hinrich Biesterfeldt and Tricia Tunstall (New York: Columbia University Press, 2021), 187–92.

50

Aziz Ahmad describes this thrust in Khan’s scholarship as “show[ing] the unmistakable influence of Unitarianism.” See Aziz Ahmad, Islamic Modernism in India and Pakistan, 1857–1964 (London: Oxford University Press, 1970), 41.

51

Syed Ahmed Kḫan, A Series of Essays on the Life of Mohammed, and subjects subsidiary thereto (London: Trübner & Company, 1870), viii.

52

Ahmed Kḫan, A Series of Essays on the Life of Mohammed, viii.

53

Ahmad Khan published A Series of Essays on the Life of Mohammed in response to William Muir’s defamatory biography of the prophet Muhammad, The Life of Mahomet, hoping to curb the misunderstanding and hostility that Muir’s text was inciting.

54

This analysis of Khan’s discursive employment of naicar focuses primarily on the single essay which appeared in Tahz̲īb ul-Ak̲h̲lāq in 1879 rather than offering a comprehensive approach. David Lelyveld’s book chapter “Naicari Nature” offers a broader analysis of naicar in Khan’s writing, and I am deeply indebted to this scholarship.

55

Khan, Intik̲h̲āb-i Mażāmīn-i Sar Sayyid, 128.

56

Lelyveld, “Naicari Nature,” 78.

57

Khan, Intikhāb-i Mażāmīn-i Sar Sayyid, 127.

58

Arjomand, “Persianate Islam and Its Regional Spread,” 79.

59

Ahmed, What is Islam, 337.

60

Bauer, A Culture of Ambiguity: An Alternative History of Islam, 15–29.

61

Syed Ahmed Khan, “Lecture on Islam (1884),” in Sayyid Ahmad Khan: A reinterpretation of Muslim theology, trans. Christian Troll (New Delhi: Vikas Publishing House, 1978), 318.

62

In focusing on the Ahl-i Ḥadīs, I don’t mean to overemphasize their importance as Ahmad Khan’s only interlocuters, or even necessarily the most important ones; there were many rival reformist firms who engaged with Ahmad Khan’s ideas and some, like the Ahl al-Qurʾān who actively embraced them. (See Fuchs, “Casting aside Conjecture,” 409). However, since a number of historians of this period have qualified Ahmad Khan’s religious ideas as essentially towing the Ahl-i Ḥadīs line (Metcalf, Troll), his hostile reception by the group is noteworthy and, as this article argues, exposes their shared rhetorical fault lines.

63

For a more comprehensive biography of Siddiq Hasan Khan, see Seema Alavi, “Siddiq Hasan Khan (1832–90) and the Creation of a Muslim Cosmopolitanism in the 19th Century,” Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient 54, no. 1 (2011): 1–38.

64

When the Ahl-i Ḥadīs scholars initiated a radical rejection of taqlid, they were partly taking on the mantle of the eighteenth-century South Asian Islamic reformer Shah Waliullah who criticized the overreliance on this method as a kind of thoughtless, and error-prone blind-following. See Metcalf, Islamic Revival in British India, 262.

65

Metcalf, Islamic Revival in British India, 254.

66

Considering that Hasan Khan was a figurehead in the Ahl-i Ḥadīs movement, it is quite likely that he was the ‘respected scholar’ Ahmad Khan was referring to, while junior figures in the movement (such as Batalvi) were the “younger brothers.”

67

Muhammad Husain Batalvi, “Anerēbal Ahmad Khān bahādur kī tafsīr aur paṭnā ke ʿulamā,” Manqulāt: Ishāʿat as-Sunnah 6, no. 4 (1883): 118.

68

Batalvi, “Anerēbal Ahmad Khān bahādur,” 118.

69

Lelyveld, “Naicarī Nature,” 69.

70

Metcalf, Islamic Revival in British India, 266.

71

Ahmad, Islamic Modernism in India and Pakistan, 103.

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