Shibli Numani’s imagined community

By Sumaira Nawaz

14 December 2018

A 19th-century travelogue from northern India challenges colonial orientalism.


Even if in the blooming spring we didn’t reach the garden,

We still have the autumn to behold.

– Shibli Numani

In 1892, when 35-year-old Shibli Numani decided to write a travelogue about his journey to West Asia, he began by saying that he had no intention of writing one. His hand was compelled by the thought of his friends and family, he wrote, so that they could learn more about the status of Muslims outside India. For many prominent Muslim thinkers of British India, the later years of the 19th century marked a low point for the Muslim community. A teacher of Persian and Arabic at the Muhammadan Anglo-Oriental College – an important site of modern higher education in 19th-century northern India and a predecessor of Aligarh Muslim University – Numani was, therefore, interested in the institutions of the Muslim world, particularly educational, to see if they could be the blueprint for the betterment of the Subcontinent’s Muslims. As he sailed through the port cities of Aden, Cyprus, Beirut, Port Said, and Izmir, he hoped the descriptions of the social life in these cities, which were published in a book titled Safarnamah-e Rum-o Misr-o Sham, would serve as clarion call for spiritual and educational revival back home.

Born in Azamgarh in current-day Uttar Pradesh, Shibli Numani (1857-1914) was a prominent Islamic scholar and religious reformer, best known for his biographical writings on the life of Prophet Muhammad. His other well-known works includes a biography of Caliph Omar Faruq and a history of Persian poetry. Although Numani had previously traveled to Mecca for Hajj, the 1892 journey was his first extensive trip to the wider Muslim world. Accompanied by the British orientalist, a close friend and mentor, Thomas Arnold, Numani travelled from Bombay to Istanbul, after which he headed alone to Egypt. Numani looked at Turkey in particular, because the Ottoman Empire appeared to him to be the last bastion against the colonial onslaught.

Significant geographies

Travelogues were an established genre in Urdu literature when Numani decided to publish his work; the first Urdu travelogue is considered to be Yusuf Khan Kammal Posh’s Ajaibat-e-Farang (1847), a work about the author’s travels to Europe. Numani insists in the preface that his book is different from the staple works of the genre. He writes, “Readers who are seeking to read this as a typical ‘travelogue’ will not be able to enjoy it.” Numani’s primary interest was not in informing the readers about the beautiful sights encountered, his itinerary details and other such paraphernalia of travel writing.  Instead, the book was an exercise in envisioning a pan-Islamic community, especially in the face of colonial barriers that prevented Indian Muslims from seeing whether their status – moral, education, political – was mirrored in the rest of the Muslim world or not.

For Numani, Turkey functioned as a ‘significant geography’ – a term coined by literary historian and scholar of Southasian literature Francesca Orsini that challenges contouring of certain regions as cultural or political ‘cores’ and others as ‘peripheries’. Moving away from traditional theories of Western “emanation” and Eastern “imitation” of literary culture in a hierarchical colonial set-up, the idea of significant geographies looks at literary circulations in local, multilingual centres. Examples would include Raja Ram Mohan Roy setting up the first Persian newspaper of India, Mirat-ul Aḳhbar; or the fact that every prominent Urdu poet, be it Ghalib or Iqbal, wrote in Persian to prove their mettle; or that a significant body of work on the tradition of hadith was produced in Arabic in the Indian town of Deoband.

This was not the first time that a ‘Muslim world’ was being conceived and traversed, and through Numani’s own account one can gather how far and wide Indians had spread. He notes with pleasant surprise the Indian presence in Istanbul, along with details of their arrival in the city and their social status within Turkish high society. He also adds that Muslims in the region, in general, are doing much worse than other communities, such as the Christians and Jews; most affluent businessmen and shopkeepers he finds are from the latter communities, and their living quarters are cleaner and better kept. He is, however, impressed by the status of women in Turkey, and mentions women intellectuals like Fatima Khanum. Some scholars have felt that his descriptions of Muslim poverty might have been somewhat exaggerated. As Daniel Majchrowicz suggests in his study of Numani’s ‘travels for reform’, “the depiction of the entire ummah as impoverished is a rhetorical device meant to inspire Indian Muslims into action.”

Majchrowicz also notes that since “both India and Turkey had once belonged to the larger Persianate world… through the medium of Persian language and courtly and poetic culture, one could expect to integrate easily into high society.” Numani, being a northern Indian Muslim elite, had received a classical Islamic education, spoke fluent Arabic and Persian, and was thus adept at making his space in such environments. As differences between the British and the Ottoman Empire grew after the Crimean war, Numani knew he was making a journey into an empire that was past its peak. But for Numani, a Muslim world, even when in decline, was worth beholding, and capable of inspiring fellow Muslims back home.

Numani’s orientalism

Among the most remarkable aspects of Numani’s travelogue is his analysis of European writings on the Muslim world. In his introduction to the Safarnamah, Numani lambasts European writers for their lack of patience in understanding the region, and for making generalisations about an entire people from a handful of experiences, “as if civilisational knowledge has magically and suddenly been bestowed upon them”. He does not debate the cultural and political context of Turkish society because he does not deem himself adequately well informed to do so. Rather, he turns his gaze towards European scholarship and its tendency to establish the “whole from a section”. Ridiculing the European branding of Turkish people as ‘barbaric’ and ‘backward’, he compares the impact of such accounts to a deep, sedative-induced slumber that invariably descends on readers who are rendered incapable of questioning and interrogating these assumptions.

Written in a tone that is anecdotal, often sardonic, the book notes how most European writers tend to make the same set of observations about the land and its people, focusing on Turkey’s national debt and its peoples’ sexual profligacies, but not, for example, its military growth. Numani writes how writers from the West are often at the mercy of their Christian guides and are limited to drawing superficial, sometimes inaccurate, conclusions about the region. He highlights an instance where one of his European colleagues was told by a guide that non-Muslims were not allowed to enter Cairo’s Al-Azhar University. Numani is distraught at how readily his friend believes this falsehood, due to preconceived notions about ‘Muslim intolerance’.

Numani finds this readiness to generalise similar to the expertise European travellers claimed about India. A century before Edward Said’s classic Orientalism, Numani notes how difficult it is to oppose these “realities” – like a “bird singing her melody in a European drum-house.” He argues that religious prejudice has given way to literary and cultural propaganda. When authentic sources could not be found and when they were concerned about accusations of religious animosity, he writes that European authors turned to fiction:

They took up a cleverer approach, the problems of Islamic rules, societies and communities were written about as “historical” facts, and by producing biased writings such as novels, short-stories and poetry, they made these views settle so deeply that they cannot be changed.

A changing world

Travelling in the age of steam, Numani’s movement was markedly different, and quicker, than those of his predecessors. As scholar of global history Nile Green points out, “combined travels around the Middle East and Europe became increasingly accessible to Asian intellectuals and elites… in which print and post enabled them to communicate their conceptualisations of these places to a worldwide Muslim public.” Numani indeed travels on a steamship but without colonially mandated documents, using his academic and social stature to make way into Al-Azhar in Cairo and Osman Nuri Pasha’s residence in Turkey. The latter, a decorated Ottoman field marshal, even accorded him a medal whose detailed image is included in the text. However, Numani was prohibited from wearing it under British colonial rule.

Numani travelled to Turkey at a time when it was witnessing rapid modernisation – expansion of railways, military prowess, and educational and constitutional reforms. Political conditions were rapidly changing; the reigning king would be deposed by the Young Turk revolution in 1908. But even though West Asia’s Muslims and their everyday lives appeared to be the main subject for Numani, he always returned to what he saw as the moral and social decline of Indian Muslims, and how they could learn from the ummah, the community of believers in Islamic lands.

This was partly due to turf wars at home. Even as he was engaged with the Muhammadan Anglo-Oriental College, Numani had expressed his differences with the Muslim reformer and the college’s founder Syed Ahmed Khan over what the ideal path for educational reform should be. Syed Ahmed wanted Islamic thinking to be free of dogma, and successfully led the Aligarh Movement, which advocated for an institution that would provide modern, and British, education to Indian Muslims and help them acquire administrative positions in the colonial bureaucracy.

Numani’s political outlook was pan-Islamic and he sought a middle ground between the modernising drive of Muhammedan Anglo-Oriental College and the traditional methods of Dar-ul Ulum Deoband. Following his ideological disagreements with the Aligarh Movement, where he felt there was an increasing disregard of Islamic scholastic traditions, he founded the Nadwat-ul Ulama Madrasa in Lucknow in 1894 – two years after his West Asian trip – where he hoped to implement his pedagogical ideas. 

East to east

Numani considered travel-writing as a form of history writing that was not free of its own biases. He admittedly pushes the boundaries of the genre by choosing to tour major educational institution and surveying pedagogical systems along his route, and as Majchrowicz puts it, with “entire pages given over to charts and figures detailing syllabi, enrolment and funding”. Early on in the travelogue, Numani notes the increase in number of schools in Turkey from 94 to 405, wondering why European writers choose to ignore such developments. Not at all a romantic, however, he holds Al-Azhar to account, deploring the rote-learning of traditional classical texts and questioning its claim of being the pinnacle of Islamic education.

Still, his text is more than a scholastic enterprise. It is peppered with interesting events, information about popular sites and his meetings with rulers and elite, along with details of lifestyles and the treatment of women in the region. Steamship bound, he writes that despite the physical ease of travel, Indian Muslims were becoming increasingly unaware of how their brethren live under and cope with the British rule elsewhere. Deprived of a reasoned voice about Islamic heartlands, but in want of more information, they have resorted to European orientalist accounts that were filled with imageries of the “lascivious” Turk, says Numani. His pressing need to write this account was, therefore, two-fold: to present an alternative view of Turkish society and its people; and, armed with knowledge of Turkish institutions and practices, envision and enframe the Nadva syllabus – a modernised curriculum that hoped to straddle Western and traditional Islamic scholarship.

Cultural shifts following the age of empires and the congealing of nation-state boundaries have rendered multi-cultural, multi-lingual networks, such as the one that was strong during and before Numani’s time, invisible. Despite interventions made by postcolonial scholarship, we still grapple with cultural connections that move from European centres to Eastern peripheries. Numani’s work is an example of a cultural work of the industrial age, which allowed faster movement of people and ideas. Numani wanted to move beyond Aligarh and Dar-ul Ulum to find his middle ground, and interestingly enough, he chose Turkey. He is critical of whatever he sees, constantly evaluating his own axes of “progress” as well – along the lines of gender, education, military prowess or hygiene. Anchored on Turkey as a significant geography, his book was, therefore, as much about Muslims in the Subcontinent as it was about Turkey and the wider Muslim world.


~Sumaira Nawaz holds an MA in Languages and Cultures of South Asia from SOAS. She has been living in Iran and learning Persian at the University of Tehran for a year now.

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