January 6, 2008
The Wisdom Fund

The Madrasas of Delhi, India

by William Dalrymple

Colonel William Sleeman, famous for his suppression of the Thugs and a leading critic of the administration of the Indian courts, had to admit that the madrasa education given in Delhi was something quite remarkable: "Perhaps there are few communities in the world among whom education is more generally diffused than among Muhammadans [Muslims] in India," he wrote on a visit to the Mughal capital.

"He who holds an office worth twenty rupees a month commonly gives his sons an education equal to that of a prime minister. They learn, through the medium of Arabic and Persian languages, what young men in our colleges learn through those of Greek and Latin-that is grammar, rhetoric, and logic. After his seven years of study, the young Muhammadan binds his turban upon a head almost as well filled with the things which appertain to these branches of knowledge as the young man raw from Oxford-he will talk as fluently about Socrates and Aristotle, Plato and Hippocrates, Galen and Avicenna; (alias Sokrat, Aristotalis, Alflatun, Bokrat, Jalinus and Bu Ali Sena); and, what is much to his advantage in India, the languages in which he has learnt what he knows are those which he most requires through life."

The reputation of Delhi madrasas was certainly sufficient to inspire the young poet Altaf Husain Hali to flee his marriage in Panipat and walk the 53 miles to Delhi, alone and penniless and sleeping rough, in an attempt to realise his dream of studying in the famous colleges there: "Everyone wanted me to look for a job," he wrote later, "but my passion for learning prevailed." Delhi was after all a celebrated intellectual centre, and in the early 1850s it was at the peak of its cultural vitality. It had six famous madrasas and at least four smaller ones, nine newspapers in Urdu and Persian, five intellectual journals published out of the Delhi College, innumerable printing presses and publishers, and no fewer than 130 Yunani doctors. Here many of the new wonders uncovered by Western science were being translated for the first time into Arabic and Persian, and in the many colleges and madrasas the air of intellectual open-mindedness and excitement was palpable.

But the biggest draw of all were the poets and intellectuals, men such as Ghalib, Zauq, Sahbai and Azurda: "By some good fortune." wrote Hali, "there gathered at this time in the capital, Delhi, a band of men so talented that their meetings and assemblies recalled the days of Akbar and Shah Jahan." Hali's family tracked him down eventually, but before they found him, and hauled him back to married life in the mofussil (provinces), he was able to gain admittance in the "very spacious and beautiful" madrasa of Husain Bakhsh and to begin his studies there: "I saw with my own eyes this last brilliant glow of learning in Delhi," he wrote in old age, "the thought of which now makes my heart crack with regret." [p.90-91]

[William Dalrymple's article on the madrasas of Pakistan was awarded the prize for Best Print Article of the Year at the 2005 FPA Media Awards. In 2007, The Last Moghal won the prestigous Duff Cooper Prize for History and Biography.]

William Dalrymple, "Inside Islam's 'terror schools'," New Statesman, March 28, 2005

Paul Lewis, "Charting the Lost Innovations of Islam," Guardian, March 10, 2006

[At the same time that most of Catholic Europe was given over to the Inquisition, and in Rome Giordano Bruno was being burnt for heresy at the stake in the Campo dei Fiori, in India the Mughal Emperor Akbar was holding multi-faith symposia in his palace and declaring that "no man should be interfered with on account of religion, and anyone is to be allowed to go over to a religion that pleases him." He promoted Hindus at all levels of the administration, entrusted bis army to his former enemy, Raja Man Singh of ]aipur, and filled his court with artists and intellectuals, Muslim and non-Muslim alike.--William Dalrymple, "The Last Mughal: The Fall of a Dynasty," Knopf (March 27, 2007), p.5

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