Abdul Latif (1828-1893) was born in rural Faridpur and pursued his early education there. His father, Qazi Faqir Muhammad, then enrolled him at Calcutta Madrasah for higher education in Arabic, Persian, Urdu and the Islamic sciences. Originally founded in October 1780 by Warren Hastings, an official of the East India Company, to train up a new generation of Indians who could work for the Company, the Calcutta Madrasah became a renowned centre for Arabic and Persian studies in Bengal. Abdul Latif studied at this institution and acquired proficiency in English, Oriental languages and modernist ideas and thoughts. Qazi Faqir Muhammad’s decision to provide a varied and balanced education to his son was an important and decisive move on his part given the fact that English education was not very popular in the Muslim community at the time.
Abdul Latif was brought up and educated at a time when the Muslims of India had developed an indifferent attitude towards the British. Having ruled the Subcontinent for centuries, the Muslims struggled to come to terms with the new politico-economic order that had been ushered in by the East India Company. Not surprisingly, they also failed to anticipate the wider social, cultural and educational transformations that were taking place across Bengal following the defeat of Nawab Siraj al-Dawlah at the hands of the East India Company in 1757. Thus maintaining a negative attitude vis-à-vis the British was not only an unrealistic and inappropriate policy, but the Muslim leaders failed to understand and appreciate the long-term impact and significance of British presence in India. This proved to be very detrimental to the social, political, economic and educational interests of the Muslims of India in general and that of Bengal in particular.
The prevailing social, political and religious challenges and difficulties aside, the Muslims of Bengal had fallen behind their Hindu counterparts both educationally and economically. The Hindu elites had not only embraced English education and culture, but they also fully co-operated with the latter from the outset. This enabled them to retain their estates and properties, thus they were financially in a far better position to access modern education and learning than were their Muslim counterparts. By encouraging their children to acquire English education, the Hindus were able to secure well-paid, high-ranking government jobs. Accordingly, they reached the highest echelons of the Indian civil, judicial and administrative services while the Muslim community of Bengal suffered from political disunity and cultural stagnation, coupled with widespread poverty and economic backwardness, not to mention religious in-fighting and bickering among the ulama. This eventually forced some members of the Muslim community to break with the past and to proactively engage with the new rulers of their country. In so doing they encouraged the Muslims to become dynamic members of society (although it is true that most of the Muslim leaders of Bengal at the time were Urdu-speaking urban elites who struggled to relate to the predominantly Bengali-speaking rural Muslim masses). However, unlike the Muslim elites, Qazi Faqir Muhammad, the father of Abdul Latif, belonged to a new generation of Muslims who were keen to reshape the future of their country. In so doing they left their indelible marks in the annals of modern Indian history in general and that of Bengal in particular.
Encouraged by his father, Abdul Latif not only excelled in traditional and modern education. Such a broad and balanced upbringing enabled Abdul Latif to become a confident and disciplined young man who became very proud of his Islamic culture and heritage and, at the same time, he was able to converse and interact with both the Hindu and British elites of Calcutta. After completing his formal education, he joined government educational service and was posted to Dhaka where he served as a teacher at Dhaka Collegiate School. After a brief spell at this school, he returned to the Calcutta Madrasah, his almer mater, to take up the position of Professor of Arabic, Islamic Studies and English. This was a rare and unusual combination for a Muslim to achieve at the time.
He was barely 21 when he was appointed a Deputy Magistrate in Calcutta. He served in this capacity for a quarter of a century and became well-known for his legal acumen, sound judgement and personal integrity. Abdul Latif was highly regarded within the corridors of power on account of his good standing in the Muslim community. F. B. Bradley-Birt, stated that he was ‘universally acknowledged as one of the foremost leaders of Muhammadan society not only in Bengal but throughout India.’ During his tenure as Deputy Magistrate, Abdul Latif served in many rural locations and became a champion of the poor (Muslim and Hindu alike) through his opposition to the oppressive policies and practices of the wealthy Hindu landholders as well as the European indigo planters. This led to the establishment of the Indigo Commission on 31 March 1860.
Abdul Latif’s efforts to protect the poor farmers, coupled with his honesty, loyalty and dedication to the government as well as his increasing popularity in the Muslim community, subsequently prompted the government to make him the first Muslim member of the Bengal Legislative Council in 1862; he was only 34 at the time.
A year later he was appointed a Fellow of Calcutta University which had hitherto been dominated by Hindu and British elites. Then, in April 1863 he founded the Muhammadan Literary and Scientific Society in Calcutta which inspired Sayyid Ahmad Khan to establish his Scientific Society in Ghazipur in the same year. Abdul Latif wanted to promote learning, education and scholarship amongst the Muslims of Bengal who were way behind their Hindu counterparts both economically and educationally. If Sayyid Ahmad Khan had played an important role in promoting modern education in the wider Indian Muslim community, then Abdul Latif must be considered a pioneer in this area.
As a devout Muslim who was equally conservative in his style and outlook, Abdul Latif’s reformist approach to Islam did not entail a complete break with the Islamic past; rather he advocated the need to pursue traditional Islamic education and learning, while, at the same time, making efforts to excel in modern English education. He argued that it was possible to be a devout, practising Muslim and attain worldly success at the same time. There was no need to reject one in order to achieve the other. Abdul Latif was also far from being a blind imitator of all things Western; instead, he became a very wise and discerning champion of modern education who was equally determined to uphold the traditional Islamic values and ethos. He was supported in his efforts by many prominent Muslim leaders and scholars of the time including Mawlana Ubaydullah al-Ubaidi Suhrawardi, Maulvi Abdur Ra’uf Wahid and Mawlana Karamat Ali Jaunpuri, among others.
Although Abdul Latif’s approach to Islam was sound and well-informed, he was aware that his reformist agenda was unlikely to make any headway without any discussion and dialogue taking place between the Muslims of Bengal and the ruling British elites. He was the initiator of mutual understanding and co-operation.
He worked under the umbrella of the Muhammadan Literary and Scientific Society and persuaded the government to establish an Anglo-Persian Department at the Calcutta Madrasah and to provide scholarships to worthy Muslim students. Abdul Latif successfully argued the case for transforming the Hindu College into a Presidency College to enable Muslim students to join the college to pursue higher education. Abdul Latif argued for this change because the Muslims refused to send their children to a Hindu College which was, at the time, dominated by non-Muslim teachers. He suggested that the Anglo-Persian Department at the Calcutta Madrasah be transformed into a college long before Sir Sayyid established the Muhammadan Anglo-Oriental College in Aligarh. He authored numerous research papers on the educational needs of the Muslims of Bengal including ‘A Minute on the Hooghly Madrasah’ and ‘A Paper on Mohammedan Education in Bengal’. He was promoted by the government to the post of Presidency Magistrate, thanks to his devotion and hard work.
Abdul Latif was not a politician but he was actively involved in the affairs of the Muslim community. Thanks to his efforts, the Muhsin Endowment Fund was set aside by the government for the benefit of the Muslim students as well as for the maintenance of Bengal’s Madrasahs (Islamic seminaries). Secular Bengali nationalists argue that he was a non-Bengali but this is inaccurate and misleading. He spoke Bengali at home and played a pivotal role in promoting Bengali by including it on the curriculum of Calcutta Madrasah along with Arabic, Persian and Urdu. His effort to promote Bengali was acknowledged by Mir Musharraf Husayn who dedicated his Basanta Kumari Play (Basanta Kumari Natak) to Abdul Latif. Mir Musharraf Husayn considered him to be a lover of Bengali language and literature. In 1877, Abdul Latif was awarded the title of ‘Khan Bahadur’. Three years later, he was made a ‘Nawab’. In 1883, he was honoured with the Order of C.I.E. and, in 1887, he received one of the highest honours as ‘Nawab Bahadur’.
This was no mean achievement for a man who started his career as a humble Madrasah teacher, but through hard work and devotion to his cause he attained a lofty position in society. This great Muslim leader of Bengal died at the age of 65 and was laid to rest in Calcutta. The Muslim community of Bengal and especially Bangladesh owes a debt of gratitude to Nawab Abdul Latif for his efforts to awaken it from its slumber. Unlike the Hindus, he found the Muslim community educationally backward and politically disorganised, thus totally unprepared for the challenges that lay ahead, but he urged them to arise and work hard to reclaim their rightful place in society. May his soul rest in peace!
By Muhammad Mojlum Khan