[Editor’s note: The following is an excerpt from William Dalrymple’s new book The Last Mughal: The Fall of a Dynasty: Delhi, 1857.]
Since they had finally succeeded in conquering and subduing the Sikhs in 1849, the British at last found themselves the masters of South Asia: every single one of their military rivals had now been conquered—Siraj ud-Daula of Bengal in 1757, the French in 1761, Tipu Sultan of Mysore in 1799, and the Marathas in 1803 and again, finally, in 1819.
For the first time there was a feeling that technologically, economically and politically, as well as culturally, the British had nothing to learn from India and much to teach; it did not take long for imperial arrogance to set in. This arrogance, when combined with the rise of Evangelical Christianity, slowly came to affect all aspects of relations between the British and the Indians.
The Delhi College, initially more a madrasa than a Western university, was remodelled by the [British East India] Company in 1828 to provide, in addition to its oriental studies, an education in English language and literature. The object was “to uplift” what the new college committee now saw as the “uneducated and half-barbarous people of India.” Behind the move was Charles Trevelyan, the brother-in-law and disciple of Thomas Babingdon Macaulay, the same Macaulay whose minute famously declared that “a single shelf of a good European library was worth the whole native literature of India and Arabia”:
The historical information which has been collected from all the books written in the Sanscrit language is less valuable than what may be found in the most paltry abridgments used at preparatory schools in England . . . The languages of Western Europe civilized Russia. I cannot doubt that they will do for the Hindoo what they have done for the Tartar.
Trevelyan now put such views into action at Delhi College, declaring, “Only the pure fount of English literature [can make] headway against the impenetrable barrier of habit and prejudice backed by religious feeling.” Shortly afterwards, in 1837, the British abolished Persian as the language of government and replaced it with English (and occasionally the regional language as well). From now on, it was clear, the British were setting the agenda and India would be governed entirely according to their tastes, traditions and judgements.
Yet even Indians who were educated in the new English college found it did little to improve their treatment at British hands. According to Mohan Lal Kashmiri, who was a pupil in the first batch of students taught in the Delhi English College, “the distant and contemptible manner with which we are treated by the generality of English gentlemen, wounds our hearts and compels us to forget the blessings of the British rule.” He added a word of warning: “You may crush down the populace and keep them in awe with your arms, but until you conquer and win the hearts of the people, the peace and affection will be more an outward word of talk” than reality.
To the White Mughals who had tried to bridge the two cultures, the change in tone and the sheer ever-growing rudeness of the British were deeply dispiriting. William Gardner was profoundly embedded in the tolerant and hybrid court culture of the Mughals; to him, attempts by missionaries like Jennings to force their customs and religions on an unwilling India were as horrifying as they were inexplicable. He was especially irritated by the degree to which the British seemed to have lost touch with Indian opinion. As he wrote to a cousin, over and over again the British succeeded in giving offence “for want of knowledge of the natives . . . Injustice and Tyranny were never exceeded by any government that ever existed.” His feelings were shared by Ochterlony, who in his old age was equally horrified by the way his younger colleagues treated the Emperor and his family: “The House of Timoor far from being thought worthy to command the least consideration,” he wrote to a sympathetic William Fraser, “is apparently sinking into the very lowest state of contempt. I fear . . . we do not gain much Popularity in the eyes of the natives by such marked degradation.” When Fanny Parkes was in Delhi, she paid a call to an old princess who was a cousin of the Gardners in the zenana of the Red Fort. At the beginning of the British ascendancy, such visits would have been routine and unremarkable. But by the late 1840s the reaction from the British community in Delhi was one of near-horror. “I heard that I was much blamed for visiting the princess,” wrote Fanny afterwards.
Look at the poverty, the wretched poverty of these descendants of the Emperors! In former times strings of pearls and valuable jewels were placed on the necks of departing visitors. When the Princess Hyat-ool-Nissa Begum in her fallen fortunes put the necklace of freshly gathered white jasmine flowers over my head, I bowed with as much respect as if she had been the Queen of the Universe. Others may look upon these people with contempt, I cannot. Look at what they are, what they have been. One day a gentleman, speaking to me of the extravagance of one of the young princes, mentioned that he was always in debt, he could never live upon his allowance. The allowance of the prince was twelve rupees a month! Not more than the wages of a head servant.
By the late 1830s, White Mughals like Fraser, Gardner and Ochterlony were becoming few and far between; they and their way of life were beginning to die out. The wills of Company officials show that it was at this time that the number of Indian wives, or bibis (consorts or girlfriends), being mentioned begins to decline: from turning up in one in three wills in the period 1780–85, the practice had gone into steep decline. Between 1805 and 1810, bibis appear in only one in every four wills; by 1830 it is one in six; by the middle of the century they have all but disappeared.
The speed of the decline of such liaisons far outstrips the speed of the arrival of the white women, whose numbers really increased dramatically only after, rather than before, 1857. This was a result of a changing pattern of Company recruitment: reforms to the Civil Service in 1856 meant that after 1857 civil servants began to come out in their mid-twenties, after undergoing competitive examinations following university, and by that time often arrived in India already married; in contrast, in the earlier period young men had to apply to join the Company before their sixteenth birthday, and thus arrived still malleable and unattached. The drift apart cannot therefore be blamed on the memsahibs, as generations of schoolchildren have been taught.
More than twenty years earlier, by the early 1830s, Englishmen who had taken on Indian wives or customs had already begun to become objects of surprise and even derision. By the mid-nineteenth century there was growing “ridicule” of Company servants “who allow whiskers to grow and who wear turbans in imitation of the Musalmans.” Pyjamas—common dress in eighteenth-century Calcutta and Madras—for the first time became something that an Englishman slept in rather than something he wore during the day. As the Delhi Gazette put it in an editorial of 1856:
Instances have been known of Englishmen coming out to India early in life and becoming in the course of time so thoroughly Indianized, so identified with the natives (usually with the Mohammedan natives) in habits and feelings as to lose all relish for European society, to select their associates and connections from among the Muslims, to live in every respect in Mussalman fashion, and to either openly or tacitly adopt the Mussalman creed, at any rate ceasing to manifest any interest in Christianity . . . These have frequently been men of very superior ability . . . and their familiarity with the ways of the natives may have paved the way for successes otherwise dubious or impracticable. It is evident however that such time has gone by, and we must be careful not to be misled by their opinions, however applicable to the task of their day. It is now clear that the present practical influence of such a class, a class fast dying out, can only be to retard the progress of knowledge in India, to abet the native in his adherence to his ancient ways, to keep him tenacious to his old ideas of Oriental conservatism and hostile to all innovation . . .
Comfortably settled in his rooms in the Red Fort, Padre Jennings was clear in his own mind that he represented the new broom that was needed to sweep away such morally corrupt attitudes. Before long he was joined by two junior assistants, one of whom learned Urdu and Persian with a view to targeting the Muslims, and the other Sanskrit, aiming at the Hindus. Together they quickly realised all the fears and suspicions of the Delhi elite by beginning secret Bible classes in the officially secular Delhi College.
For several months, however, there was a notable absence of conversions and a growing hostility to Jennings’ attempts to produce some. Then in July 1852, four months after the wedding of Jawan Bakht, Jennings pulled off a major coup. Two prominent Delhi Hindus, Dr. Chaman Lal, one of Zafar’s personal physicians, and his friend Master Ramchandra, a talented mathematics lecturer at the Delhi College, both announced they wished to convert. Jennings was only too anxious to oblige, and arranged to baptise them in a very public ceremony at St. James’s Church on Sunday, 11 July. As Jennings wrote to the SPG soon afterwards, in a report glowing with self-satisfaction,
Never was a field riper for missionary efforts than this one . . . These men have many connections in Delhi and were high in esteem, and their baptism consequently caused the greatest excitement throughout the city . . . The whole Hindu population assembled around the church on Sunday evening . . .
Soldiers were on hand in case of trouble, but there was no immediate uproar, although there was, for many days afterwards, a “violent agitation throughout the city.” Respectable families quickly removed their children from the Delhi College where Master Ramchandra worked. Meanwhile even the most pro-British of the ‘ulama now began to have second thoughts about their increasingly militant Christian masters.
One of these was Mufti Sadruddin Azurda, a close friend of both Zafar’s and Ghalib’s, who had played an important role as bridge between the British and the Mughal elite in the early days of the British ascendancy in Delhi, and who had been a friend and protégé of Sir David Ochterlony. For thirty years Azurda had balanced his place as the chief Muslim judge (Sadr Amin) in Delhi and a leading literary figure and mufti at court with a mild Anglophilia: a natural mediator, he had argued that employment by the Company was entirely legitimate in Muslim law, and that any notion of jihad was quite inappropriate since the British had allowed full religious freedom. Now, however, even Azurda began to have serious doubts about the direction British policy was taking, and quietly went about dissuading his students at Delhi College from paying any attention to “Christian propaganda.” Others were more outspoken. According to one missionary: “The Muslims would gladly overthrow the English. They tell [us] plainly, ‘If you were not the rulers, we would soon silence your preaching, not with arguments but with the sword.’”
Just as militant Christians were a growing force among the British in the early 1850s, so among Delhi’s Muslims there was a parallel rise in rigid fundamentalism that displayed the same utter certainty and disdain for the faiths of others, as well as a similar willingness to use force against the infidel.
If the great abolitionist William Wilberforce and the Clapham Sect had helped generate the spread of fundamentalist Evangelical attitudes in English Christianity, on the Muslim side the father of the radical Islamic reform movement was Shah Waliullah, an eighteenth-century Delhi divine who had gone to study at Medina in the Hejaz at the same time as Ibn Abd al-Wahhab, the founder of the Arabian Wahhabis. While there is no evidence that the two ever met, they shared an almost identical theology, and when he returned to India, Shah Waliullah quickly declared war on what he saw as the perverted and deviant interpretations of Islam practiced in Delhi.
Shah Waliullah and his sons—notably William Fraser’s friend Shah Abdul Aziz—strongly opposed the Sufi veneration of saints, which they likened to idol worship, and were especially outspoken about the syncretic practices they believed Indian Muslims had picked up from their Hindu neighbours: making pilgrimages to Hindu holy places, consulting Hindu astrologers, piercing the noses of women for nose studs, lighting lamps on tombs, playing music in holy places, and celebrating Hindu festivals. Even the practice of eating on banana leaves was anathematised. The Shah’s solution was to strip out all non-Islamic accretions and innovations, and to emphasise instead a strictly Koranic monotheism in which prayers could be directed only to God, and never through any saintly intermediary.
Judging human reason to be incapable of reaching divine truth on its own, Shah Waliullah emphasised the importance of revealed divine revelation and urged a return to the text of the Koran and the Hadiths. In order to make those texts easily available to ordinary people, the Shah translated the Koran into Persian while his sons later translated it into Urdu and disseminated both translations through the new Delhi printing presses. Like the Wahhabis, Shah Waliullah also opposed what he saw as the corrupt Muslim rulers of his day, and from his family stronghold in the Madrasa i-Rahimiyya he and his sons and grandsons encouraged Delhiwallahs to defy what he perceived as the decadence of the Mughals and not behave like “camels with strings in their noses.”
Shah Waliullah’s dislike of the Mughals was as much theological as political. For generations the Mughal emperors had intermarried with Hindus—Zafar was quite typical in having a Rajput mother—and the slow seepage of Hindu ideas and customs from the harem into the rest of the Palace had led the later Mughal emperors to subscribe to a particularly tolerant and syncretic form of Sufi Islam, aligned to the liberal Chishti brotherhood, at the very opposite end of the theological spectrum from the hard-line views of Shah Waliullah; many fundamentalists regarded such liberal views as bordering on infidelity—kufr.
In orthodox Islam, the object of creation is the worship of God—a relationship of subordination in which God is the master and the devotee is the slave. This relationship is a very straightforward one: if you worship God in the proper way you will be rewarded—on the Day of Judgement you will go to paradise—and if you do not, you will go to hell. The Sufi-minded poet-princes of the Mughal court and their circle in the Delhi ashraf elite completely rejected this idea. They argued instead that God should be worshipped not because he had commanded us to it, but because he was such a lovable being. As a result all traditions were tolerated: anyone was capable of expressing his or her love for God, and that ability transcended religious associations, gender or indeed one’s place in the social order. This was one of the reasons why the Sufi Islam practiced so enthusiastically in the court was also so popular across the city, and also why the court circle were so violently anathematised by the more Orthodox ‘ulama.
Visits to Delhi’s ancient Sufi shrines—which then as now are venerated by Delhi’s Hindus every bit as much as by Delhi’s Muslims—are an almost weekly occurrence in the court diary of Zafar’s reign, and far outnumber any mention of visits to mosques. Zafar also gave generously to the shrine keepers whenever they presented themselves at court, and paid to have flowers placed on saints’ graves, something of which the school of Shah Waliullah especially disapproved.
Indeed, Zafar was himself regarded as a Sufi pir, and used to accept pupils, or murids.68 The loyal Dihli Urdu Akbhar went so far as to call him “one of the leading saints of the age, approved of by the divine court.” Zafar even dressed the part, and in his youth, prior to his accession, made a point of living and looking like a poor scholar and dervish, in striking contrast to his three notably dressy younger brothers, Mirzas Jahangir, Salim and Babur: “He was a man of spare figure and stature, plainly apparelled, almost approaching to meanness,” reported Major Archer in 1828, when Zafar was fifty-three, and still a decade away from succeeding to the throne. “His appearance was that of an indigent munshi, or teacher of languages.”
Zafar’s Sufism took two very distinct forms. As a poet and dervish, he imbibed the highest subtleties of mystical Sufi writing. But he was also deeply susceptible to the magical and superstitious side of popular Islam. He seems to have believed, for example—as did many of his people—that his position as both Sufi master and Emperor gave him tangible spiritual powers. Thus when one of his followers was bitten by a snake, Zafar attempted to cure him by sending “a Seal of Bezoar [a stone antidote to poison] and some water on which he had breathed,” and giving it to the man to drink.
The Emperor also had a great belief in charms, or ta’wiz, especially as a palliative for his perennial complaint of piles, or to ward off evil spells. During one period of illness, he gathered a group of leading Sufi pirs and told them that “several Begums suspected that some party or other had cast a spell over him. He therefore requested them to take steps to remedy this so as to remove all apprehensions on this account. They replied that they would write out some charms for his Majesty. They were to be mixed in water which when taken [i.e.,drunk] would guard him from all evil.” Such pirs, wonder workers and Hindu astrologers were in constant attendance on the King, and on their advice he regularly sacrificed buffaloes and camels, buried eggs, and arrested supposed black magicians, as well as wearing a special ring to cure indigestion. He also, on their advice, regularly donated cows to the poor, elephants to Sufi shrines and a horse to the khadims (clergy) of the Jama Masjid.
Zafar’s poetry, however, existed on a higher plane than this. Like much verse of the period, it was deeply imbued with the Sufi ideals of love, which were regarded as much the surest route to a God who was seen to be located not in the heavens but deep within the human heart. For if the world of the heart lay at the centre of Sufism, it also formed the cornerstone of the principal literary form in late Mughal Delhi—the ghazal, which derived its name from the Arabic words “talking to a woman about love.” The love of the ghazal poet was ambiguous—it was rarely made entirely clear whether it was sacred or worldly love to which the poet referred. This ambiguity was deliberate, for just as the longing of the soul for union with God was believed to be as compelling and as all-embracing as the longing of the lover for the beloved, both loves could be carried to the point of insanity or what Sufis called fana—self-annihilation and immersion in the beloved. In the eyes of the Sufi poets, this search for the God within liberated the seeker from the restrictions of narrowly orthodox Islam, encouraging the devotee to look beyond the letter of the law to its mystical essence. As Ghalib put it,
The object of my worship lies beyond perception’s reach;
For men who see, the Ka’ba is a compass, nothing more.
Look deeper, he tells the orthodox: it is you alone who cannot hear the music of His secrets. Like many of his Delhi contemporaries, Ghalib could write profoundly religious poetry, yet was skeptical about literalist readings of the Muslim scriptures. Typical were his bantering meditations on paradise, which he wrote in a letter to a friend: “In Paradise it is true that I shall drink at dawn the pure wine mentioned in the Koran,” he wrote,
but where in Paradise are the long walks with intoxicated friends in the night, or the drunken crowds shouting merrily? Where shall I find there the intoxication of Monsoon clouds? Where there is no Autumn how can Spring exist? If the beautiful houris are always there, where will be the sadness of separation and the joy of union? Where shall we find there a girl who flees away when we would kiss her?
In the same spirit in Ghalib’s poetry the orthodox Shaikh always represents narrow-mindedness and hypocrisy:
The Shaikh hovers by the tavern door,
But believe me, Ghalib,
I am sure I saw him slip in,
As I departed.
In his letters too Ghalib frequently contrasts the narrow legalism of the ‘ulama, “teaching the baniyas and brats, and wallowing in the problems of menstruation and post-natal bleeding,” with real spirituality, for which you had to “study the works of the mystics and take into one’s heart the essential truth of God’s reality and his expression in all things.”
Like the rest of the court circle, Ghalib was prepared to take this insight to its natural conclusion. If God lay within and could be reached less by ritual than by love, then he was as accessible to Hindus as to Muslims. So it was that on a visit to Benares he could playfully write that he was half tempted to settle down there for good, and that he “wished he had renounced the faith, put a sectarian mark on my forehead, tied a sacred thread around my waist and seated myself on the bank of the Ganges so that I could wash the contamination of existence away from myself and like a drop be one with the river.”
This was an attitude to Hinduism that Zafar—and many of his Mughal forebears—shared. It is clear that Zafar consciously saw his role as a protector of his Hindu subjects, and a moderator of extreme Muslim demands and the chilling Puritanism of many of the ‘ulama. One of Zafar’s verses says explicitly that Hinduism and Islam “share the same essence,” and his court lived out this syncretic philosophy, and both celebrated and embodied this composite Hindu-Muslim Indo-Islamic civilisation, at every level. The Hindu elite of Delhi went to the Sufi shrine of Nizamuddin, could quote Hafiz and were fond of Persian poetry. Their children—especially those of the administrative Khattri and Kayasth castes—studied under maulvis and attended the more liberal madrasas, bringing offerings of food for their teachers on Hindu festivals. For their part, Muslims followed the Emperor in showing honour to Hindu holy men, while many in the court, including Zafar himself, followed the old Mughal custom, borrowed from upper-caste Hindus, of drinking only Ganges water. Zafar’s extensive team of Hindu astrologers rarely left his side.
The court diary records how Zafar would play the spring festival of Holi, spraying his courtiers, wives and concubines with different coloured paints, initiating the celebrations by bathing in the water of seven wells. The autumn Hindu festival of Dussera would be marked in the Palace by the distribution of presents and nazrs to Zafar’s Hindu officers, and (more unexpectedly) the colouring of the horses in the Royal Stud. In the evening, the King would then watch the Ram Lila—the celebration of the Hindu god-king Ram’s defeat of evil in the shape of the demon Ravana, annually celebrated in Delhi with the burning of giant effigies of the demon and his brothers. Zafar even asked for a change in the route of the Ram Lila procession so that it would skirt the entire flank of the Palace, allowing it to be enjoyed in all its glory. On Diwali, Zafar would weigh himself against “seven kinds of grain, gold, coral and directed their distribution among the poor.”
The diary is full of the daily consequences of this marked sensitivity to Hindu feelings. One evening, when Zafar was riding out across the river “for an airing . . . a Hindoo waited on the King intimating his wish to become a Mussalman. Hakim Ahsanullah Khan [Zafar’s prime minister] represented that it would not be proper to attend to his request and HM directed that he should be removed from the place.” During the Flower-sellers’ Fair, the Phulwalon ki Sair, held annually at the ancient Jog Maya temple and the Sufi shrine of Qutb Sahib in Mehrauli, Zafar announced that “he would not accompany the pankah into the shrine as he could not accompany it into the temple.” On another occasion, when a party of two hundred Muslims turned up at the Palace demanding to be allowed to slaughter cows—holy to Hindus—at ‘Id, Zafar told them in a “decided and angry tone that the religion of the Musalmen did not depend upon the sacrifice of cows.” Like Ghalib, Zafar had a deep disdain for narrow-minded Shaikhs: one evening’s entertainment at the Palace consisted of “Kadir Bakhsh the actor personating a Maulvi [Muslim cleric] in the presence of the King. HM was much pleased and ordered Mahbub Alee Khan [the Chief Eunuch] to give him the usual present.”
The Delhi ‘ulama returned the disdain of the court. According to Sir Sayyid Ahmad Khan, “Many of the Delhi moulvies and their followers considered the king to be little better than a heretic. They were of the opinion that it was not right to pray in the mosques to which he was in the habit of going and which were under his patronage.” Zafar’s devotional attachment to Imam Ali was especially galling to the orthodox Sunni: the Shia festival of Muharram—the incarnation of Islamic heresy in the eyes of the resolutely Sunni Shah Waliullah—was celebrated with enthusiasm in the Palace, with Zafar listening to the marsiya mourning poems. Partly because of this there were persistent rumours that Zafar had actually converted to Shiism. This led to the Emperor receiving several outraged delegations from the Delhi ‘ulama threatening to take the ultimate sanction of excluding his name from the Friday prayers—effectively excommunicating him and delegitimising his rule—if the rumour ever proved true.
As the nineteenth century progressed, such rigidly orthodox views gathered strength in Delhi, and the position of the ‘ulama solidified, so that by the 1850s the tolerant Sufi ways of Zafar and his court slowly came to look as old-fashioned and outdated as the hybrid lifestyles and open-minded religious attitudes of the White Mughals did among the now solidly Evangelical British. The stage was being set for a clash of rival fundamentalisms.
There was a strong class aspect as well to this fundamentalist opposition to the heterodoxy of Zafar’s spirituality.
If Sufism and ghazal writing were the marks of court and high sharif culture, then patronising the Islamic reformist movement became the signature of the rising Punjabi Muslim merchant class, who though rich and literate felt themselves excluded from the elitist Sufi literary culture of the court. Shah Waliullah’s theologian son Shah Abdul Aziz was a prolific giver of fatwas, or legal opinions, and it is significant how many of these concern economic matters—about the permissibility of letters of credit, or of gaining income through trade in slaves, and so on—which implies that many of those seeking his opinion were heavily involved in trade and commerce. It was certainly rich Punjabi Muslim traders who financed the radical madrasas of Delhi, especially those who called for jihad against the kafirs and who aimed to create an Islamic society pruned of all its non-Islamic accretions.
The most outspoken of all was Sayyid Ahmad Barelvi, a notably militant alumnus of the Madrasa i-Rahimiyya, who embarked on an ill-fated jihad against the Sikhs and British on the North West Frontier in 1830. From here he wrote to the rulers of Central Asia, asking them to join hands in liberating India from British rule, the “subversion of Islamic culture and the disruption of Islamic lifestyle by the Christians,” and from the un-Islamic ways of the Mughal court. Though Barelvi, betrayed by the Afghans, died with his jihadis under the swords of the Sikhs in 1831, remnants of his mujahedin network survived underground along the trading route that linked Peshawar, Ambala, Delhi and Patna, the other principal centres of the jihadis.
In September 1852, five months after the wedding of Mirza Jawan Bakht, and two months after the conversion of Master Ramchandra and Dr. Chaman Lal by Jennings, Metcalfe’s police in Delhi came increasingly to suspect that the mujahedin network had begun to revive. Acting on a tip-off, they conducted a dawn raid on the premises of various known extremists and found evidence for what they believed was “a Wahhabi conspiracy” in Delhi itself, seizing “the correspondence of the Fanatic Moulvies [who were] preaching a crusade” against the British. The figure at the centre of the “conspiracy” was Shaikh Husain Bakhsh, a prominent Delhi trader from the Punjabi merchant community who was closely associated with the more radicalimams of the Madrasa i-Rahimiyya circle.
It was again the ‘ulama of the same radical madrasa that had led the opposition to Jennings and his missionaries, especially when, after the baptism of Ramchandra and Chaman Lal, Padre Jennings succeeded, in May 1853, in converting an unnamed Sayyid “of good family.” If the missionaries reinforced Muslim fears, increasing opposition to British rule, driving the orthodox towards greater orthodoxy and creating a constituency for the jihadis, so the existence of “Wahhabi conspiracies” strengthened the conviction of Jennings and his supporters that a “strong attack” was needed to take on such deeply embedded “Muslim fanatics.”
The histories of Islamic fundamentalism and European imperialism have very often been closely, and dangerously, intertwined. In a curious but very concrete way, the fundamentalists of both faiths have needed each other to reinforce each other’s prejudices and hatreds. The venom of one provides the lifeblood of the other.
[Excerpted from The Last Mughal by William Dalrymple Copyright © 2007 by William Dalrymple. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.]