Articles, Biographies

Nawab Abdul Latif: Between Tradition and Modernity



Nawab Abdul Latif is seldom remembered in Bengal in spite of his legacy in that region. He was amongst the first people in the Indian subcontinent to introduce English and western education and sciences to the Muslims of Bengal and the subcontinent. Yet he wasn’t alone in doing so. His most unique contribution was towards traditional madrasas, which adopted Western sciences whilst retaining the traditional sciences. This has had a lasting impact in Bengal, due to the fact that many of todays madrasas in the region, particularly the Alia madrasas (the legacy of the Nawab’s alma mater, the Calcutta Madrasa), teach the English language and western sciences and attract a considerable number of students who pursue English based education. Whilst English education existed before Nawab Abdul Latif in Calcutta Madrasa, it was hardly attended by anybody. Nawab Abdul Latif would play a pivotal role in changing this condition through his reformist activities, especially through the Mahomedan Literary Society and his role in establishing the Anglo-Persian Department at the Calcutta Madrasa.


However, he faced many challenges in making his vision a reality and therefore the fruits of his activism to this day remain inadequate and handicapped. This is due to various historical and current factors.


Muslims of India were generally happy to collaborate with Westerners as far as education was concerned. The Delhi College and the Calcutta Madrasa are some examples of this. However, this relationship suffered significantly after the East India Company and subsequently the British Raj began to interfere in the cultural, religious and the intellectual life of the ‘natives’. The ‘Macaulay’s Minute’ is a prime example of this. It was a Minute that helped pass the resolution of the English Education Act in March 1835 which slated the traditional Persian based curriculum as backward and therefore should not be supported nor enjoy patronage of the government. For centuries, many madrasas and institutions relied on support from the ruling elites. The British continued that tradition for a while before withdrawing support for the traditional sciences. Prior to this, Warren Hastings, Governor General of Fort William at the time, established the Calcutta Madrasa in October 1780, the alma mater of Nawab Abdul Latif.


By 1837, a decision was reached to abolish Persian as the official language of the courts and that they were to be replaced by English, and this was deeply unpopular amongst the Muslim masses. The dominant conservative Muslims attached both religious and practical significance to Persian. The Muslim masses as a consequence were apathetic towards English ‘modern’ education. Not only would the English Education Act and subsequent policies affect the quality of traditional education, it also meant that Muslims would struggle to find decent employment. The Hindus, on the other hand, were much more compliant and embraced the new system, just as they had embraced the Mughal system.


The terrible atrocities that occurred during the decisive conflict of 1857 not only had a political impact, but also an intellectual one. The Delhi College and many other Islamic institutions were closed after the revolt and many of its former students and teachers scattered all across India. Those previously affiliated with the College directly or indirectly, formed their own institutions that were almost polar opposites in their approach to education. Notable amongst them is the Darul Uloom Deoband and the Anglo Oriental College, also known as the Aligarh Muslim University (AMU). Whilst Deoband was established to preserve traditional education from any colonial influence, the AMU embraced English based education.


Despite Nawab Abdul Latif playing a role in the latter movement, his approach differed from both of these groups. He advocated the preservation and ‘modernisation’ of the madrasa system by preserving the traditional aspect of the madrasa whilst embracing ‘modern’ English education. Like the Deobandis, he was keen to preserve traditional Islamic sciences and like the Aligarh movement he embraced ‘modernity’ and western education. Indeed he defended the reputation and the potential of the Calcutta Madrasa fiercely against overwhelming pressure to abolish it entirely. In this effort he received little to no support, even opposition amongst his co-modernists. Syed Amir Ali were amongst those who supported the abolition of the traditional madrasa system and proposed that it be run like any other English based mainstream institution.


Furthermore, Nawab Abdul Latif’s initiatives helped reform and implement changes within various notable institutions in Bengal such as the Calcutta Madrasa in 1853, the Hooghly Madrasa and the Muhsin Endowment. As a result of the establishment of the Anglo- Persian Department at the Calcutta Madrasa, the standard of education improved dramatically. Interest in the English language, western education and higher education increased significantly marking a shift in attitude towards western education. This was nothing short of remarkable given that between 1826 and 1851 only two students (Nawab Abdul Latif himself and a certain Wahidun Nabee) were the only graduates of the English Department in Calcutta Madrasa. These reforms cannot be seen in isolation to Nawab Abdul Latif’s other activities, such as the role of the Mahomedan Literary Society, which also encouraged the Muslim intelligentsia to pursue western education through a variety of means such as seminars and exhibitions. Another notable aspect was his central role in reforming the Muhsin Endowment Fund, which offered grants to Muslim students, making education more affordable for them. Poverty and the economic condition of the Muslims in colonial Bengal and indeed in the whole of India was a major factor, which deterred Muslims from pursuing a good education.   The Madrasa performed poorly in comparison with rival Hindu and secular institutions. However given the fact that the Madrasa was grossly neglected by the authorities, on whom it once relied heavily upon, this was a significant achievement. This is something, which is often ignored by Nawab Abdul Latif’s critics who are often anachronistic and tend to have an ideological position when it concerns madrasa education. Many outstanding Muslim thinkers and reformers were alumnus of this institution. They include the likes of the brilliant Ubaydullah Suhrawardi and many others. With the proper support, the Madrasa could have possibly reached a milestone and be at par with rival institutions. But alas, this was not to be.


The reason he campaigned for the preservation of the madrasa system was to obtain religious endorsement from the traditional ‘ulama in embracing the many positive sides of western education. This was at a time when ‘ulama were perhaps far more influential than today. Thus, unlike Amir Ali and Syed Ahmad Khan, Nawab Abdul Latif enjoyed the support of the ‘ulama. Indeed, he himself is a graduate of the Calcutta Madrasa and an expert in Islamic Law and can therefore be counted as one of them.


Secondly, it was to improve employment prospects for Muslims and by extension their social, economic and political condition. Since most Muslims preferred to send their children to madrasas, it made sense to introduce English education in madrasas in a manner that would be culturally conducive; thus enabling them to fill the gap that existed between the Hindu and the Muslim community in terms of education.


Hence, Nawab Abdul Latif advocated meaningful engagement between the colonial establishment and the Muslim masses without having to assimilate entirely with the British system or even with the British lifestyle. Although Amir Ali and Syed Ahmed Khan and other modernists also had their limits in terms of assimilation, Nawab Abdul Latif was by far the most conservative amongst the modernists and this made the Nawab popular amongst the traditional ‘ulama.


It appears that Nawab Abdul Latif, like his co-modernists, seems to have equated modern education with western education. Perhaps this is the reason why he seems to not have exerted much effort, if at all, to modernise the outdated traditional curriculum (the Darse Nizami) which contributed towards Muslim backwardness and degeneration.


In fact, the reason for this is largely due to the fact that for the most part in the nineteenth century, traditional Muslims were apathetic towards all forms of modernity or change, western or otherwise. They followed their traditional forms of learning which was largely regurgitations of old texts. Ijtihad or any form of critical thinking or reasoning was barely exercised and hence madrasa learning became increasingly stagnant and irrelevant as far as meeting modern challenges was concerned. Little or nothing was done to reform the age-old Darse Nizami traditional curriculum. Signs of disinterest began to show even during the time of Nawab Abdul Latif. English based education began to be favoured at the expense of traditional education by the Muslims. The reason for this is many including that Muslims increasingly began to search elsewhere for answers to modern problems as traditionalism seemed irrelevant and they began to turn to western philosophies, ideas and solutions. There was also a realisation that Persian based education no longer offered better employment and the quality of jobs offered to those who knew Persian alone was poor in comparison to those who knew English. Therefore, the Aligarh movement and the Aligarh Muslim University became increasingly appealing and would contribute towards the rise of Muslim nationalist and separatist movements largely inspired by western ideals and which reduced Islam to a mere identity. Islam held little significance as far as their lifestyle and politics was concerned and hence the influence of the traditional ‘ulama eventually deteriorated. But by all accounts, it appears that not only Nawab Abdul Latif disapproved of this, he fought desperately to retain and preserve traditionalism against the challenges it faced from various quarters. Although he cited practical reasons as to why this should be so, even he must’ve realised by then that the appeal for traditional education was decreasing. However, it is clear that the Nawab felt that religion must play a greater role in society and even in the affairs of the state as was previously the case in India.


According to some of his critics however, Nawab Abdul Latif was part of this backwardness, as he wanted to uphold the status quo at every level within Muslim society with the exception of introducing western education. An interesting episode in his career was when he became the Dewan (First Minister) of Bhopal. Nawab Sadiq Hasan Khan was the husband of the Begum of Bhopal and had enormous influence. He was from the Ahl al- Hadith movement as opposed to Nawab Abdul Latif who adhered to the Hanafi school of thought. The two were extremely antagonistic towards each other. Nawab Sadiq Hasan was also somebody of lower class background who suddenly rose to prominence, upsetting the social elites. He married the Begum who was a widow and this was culturally unacceptable in spite of the fact that Islam has no problems with widow remarriage. He was also accused of being a Wahhabi who was promoting Jihad against British rule. For all of the above, he made enemies in almost every quarter. Thus when Nawab Abdul Latif took over the administration in Bhopal and seemingly uncovered embezzlement and financial mismanagement on the part of Nawab Sadiq Hasan, it made him very popular in the press, but unpopular with the Nawab and his aides. The question that has seldom been asked is to what degree was Nawab Abdul Latif’s scrutiny of Nawab Sadiq Hasan was motivated by his desire to uphold the status quo within Muslim societies? This needs to be explored further by historians and researchers. The official accounts concerning Nawab Sadiq Hasan are often accepted as gospel. Although Nawab Sadiq Hasan is hardly a torchbearer of progress in the Islamic tradition, the fact remains that the dominant traditional elites proved unwilling to consider any form of change.



In conclusion, Nawab Abdul Latif made a great contribution in introducing English education to the Muslims of Bengal and India in general. He tried to uphold and improve the madrasa system despite overwhelming pressure to abolish it. He ensured the steady improvement of the standard of education and helped increase interest in English education amongst Muslims. His legacy is the Alia madrasas which now teach and attract students who wish to pursue English and western education in great numbers. However, he appears to equate modernity to western education alone. He upheld traditional learning and didn’t seem to exert effort to make traditional learning more relevant, nor promote Ijtihad in addressing modern problems. Thus it was inevitable that Muslims  would increasingly turn towards western ideals to address their economic needs and to search for answers to modern problems. This led to nationalism and increasing secularism. However religious influences were far from diminished and still remain. This often puts different sections of Muslim societies at collision course between themselves due to the ‘irreligiousness’ of the ‘modernists’ and the ‘backwardness’ of the traditionalists. Had Nawab Abdul Latif’s vision of amalgamating traditionalism with modernism became a reality, this situation perhaps could have been avoided and the Muslim community would have been much more stronger, enlightened and united in facing modern challenges whilst remaining true to their tradition, religion and culture.


Muhammad H H Khan

The author of this article recently completed an MA dissertation on Nawab Abdul Latif at the University of London (2015)


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