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A Roaming Orientalist

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The 1871 volume of the Calcutta Review included a highly favorable notice on Dr. G. W. Leitner’s Urdu book Sinin-i-Islam: A Sketch of the History of Muhammadanism, for the Use of Maulawis. The journal, a publication venue preferred by British administrators and soldiers of a scholarly bent, projected that Muslim religious professionals (Maulawis) would find the work especially pleasurable. In the reviewer’s assessment, Sinin-Islam (Islamic Annals)

compares Western progress with the former progress of the Arabians, and appeals to the amour propre of the present generation to be up and doing. Dr. Leitner clearly tells the Maulawís that they have allowed European scholars to surpass them in knowledge of Arabic literature, history, and even lexicography. … He refutes the idea, which is especially common in these parts of India, that all progress, nay even the learning of a foreign language, is hostile to Islam. …Muhammadans too often live on the past, and allow themselves to drift from self-satisfaction to inactivity. We hope that Dr. Leitner’s kindly warning will bear good fruit (Anonymous, “Critical Notices,” xlii–xliii).

As identified in the review, the introduction to the first volume of Sinin-i-Islam (the second volume was published in 1876) admonished Muslims for their lack of intellectual probity. It also provided a definition for history, whose principles European scholars were bringing to bear on “oriental” materials. Having done this, they, the orientalists, have become the foremost arbiters and purveyors of oriental knowledge. Aided by Indian Muslims, and understanding himself to be a well-wisher toward them, Dr. Leitner claimed he had been motivated to write the book in Urdu to help this constituency understand themselves better by knowing the history of Islam.

Leitner’s Sinin-i-Islam is an important document to understand the conceptual transformation of the Islamic past with the adoption of modern epistemological principles. Only a few copies of the book survived, and there is no evidence that the work had its desired effect on Muslim scholarly classes. On this score, its warm reception by the Calcutta Review tells us only about public opinion among academically inclined Europeans in India. The tepid to nonexistent local reaction is unsurprising given that, among Muslim intellectuals in the nineteenth century, discussion in Urdu was conducted at a much higher level.

The book is a rudimentary, rhetorically unsophisticated, chronological sketch. Yet, the work is prescient in that the perspective on the Islamic past it contains was adopted widely in the following decades. Eventually, this perspective became the standard understanding found in introductory textbooks around the world. At the base, this is the timeline version of Islam I discuss in chapter 2, stretching from the life of Muhammad to the author’s present. Leitner’s coverage is limited to the region today identified as the Middle East (with some incursions into Iberia and Central Asia).

Leitner’s work is useful for thinking through the particularities of modernity as a conglomeration of intellectual and material conditions that bequeathed a distinctive version of Islamic history. My purpose is neither to laud Leitner’s work nor to highlight its inadequacies. Rather, it is to take the work’s perspective seriously as a symptom of a conceptual framework in action. Another section of this chapter takes up the question of modernity based on a Persian work also written in India in the late nineteenth century. That work, Sayyid Ilahi Bakhsh Angrezabadi’s Khurshid-i Jahan-numa, is virtually the opposite of the Sinin-i-Islam. For different reasons, that work is equally valuable to understand the effects of modern conditions.

City panorama showing people, buildings, and animals.

Panoramic view of the city of Lahore showing the Lahore Fort on the right. Punjab, ca.1860.


© Victoria and Albert Museum, London (Image ID 2011FD6305)


A Roaming Orientalist

Dr. Leitner’s History

Leitner had a knack for inhabiting the limelight. A consummate self-promoter, he was treated as a celebrity in his time based on his colorful life story, exceptional linguistic abilities, and high rate of scholarly production. A combative personality, always ready to hector competitors and collaborators alike, added notoriety beyond the confines of scholarly discussions.

To Europeans, he presented himself as a champion of native causes, especially concerning rights pertaining to languages and knowledge. Severely critical of armchair theorists who never left Europe, he prided himself for having traveled to dangerous places, sometimes in a disguise (an interesting counterpart to writing in Urdu) he claims to have managed successfully due to his knowledge of local languages and customs. For Indians and others, he projected himself as an emissary of modern scholarly forms whose inculcation was necessary to revitalize venerable but dissipated cultures. As represented most prominently in the Sinin-i-Islam, he believed that properly understanding the past was an absolute desideratum for an intellectual revival among Muslims in the nineteenth century.

Self-proclaimed orientalists active in the nineteenth century differed widely based on their attitudes to living societies. Some were proud of never having visited the Orient, seeing themselves as masters of literary languages from the distant past whose present forms were irrelevant to their work. Others were keen to combine scholarship and the opportunity for adventure and financial gain made available by the expansion of European empires. Leitner belonged among the latter, a group that also included other highly celebrated figures such as the British Sir Richard Burton (1821–1890) and the Dutch Christiaan Snouck Hurgronje (1857–1936), who both undertook Hajj pilgrimages to Mecca pretending to be Muslims.

Addressing Indian Muslims, Leitner in the Sinin-i-Islam singles out the French Baron Silvestre de Sacy (1758–1838), the Lebanese Christian Butrus al-Bustani (1819–1883), and the self-taught British Edward W. Lane (1801–1876) as scholars whose knowledge of Islamic history and languages surpassed that of any living Muslims (Leitner, Sinin-i-Islam, 1:11–12).

The praise of Leitner’s work in the Calcutta Review identifies two ways to be invested in the past. In tandem with Leitner, it chides Muslims for not knowing enough of their past. But it states also that their failing is that they “too often live on the past.” From this, we infer that the problem is not that Indian Muslims neglect the Islamic past. Rather, they seem to use it as a basis for conducting their lives in the present instead of treating it as an object of intrinsic substance that must be delineated and put at a temporal distance from the present.

The Urdu introduction to the Sinin-i-Islam contains Leitner’s fuller argument in this respect, defining a ”proper” attitude toward history that he considers missing among Muslims. He states the following:

In the world’s register, there is no history without a relationship to the history of other countries. Terminologically, only those events and conditions pertaining to nations that can stand up to proofs are called history (tarikh). There are matters that are correct and proper except that there is no proof for them. These have no relation to history. The history of Islam is not bound to one, two, or three countries. Quite the opposite, its effect runs through all the histories of the world. If not directly, this is through some indirect relation. For this reason, if someone wants to know the history of Islam, s/he should look at world history (Leitner, Sinin-i-Islam, 1:1–2).

A footnote to this text explains further that, to be considered history, occurrences must be placed in a universal frame. By this token, occurrences in China and Japan were not considered history until these places opened themselves to the rest of the world. Similarly, even though America existed physically before Columbus’s arrival, whatever happened there was not history until after 1492. In the case of Islam, Arabs had no history until the rise of Islam. It is only after the coming of Muhammad that the fate of Arabs got connected to those of other entities, such as Rome, Egypt, Persia, Greece, and India. Islam was a kind of sociointellectual mechanism that acted as a conduit to render Arabs historical through incorporation into universal time.

Leitner’s scheme for time was far from idiosyncratic and can be traced directly to philosophies of history in vogue in nineteenth-century Europe. Substantially the very basis for orientalists’ dissection of the world among themselves, its claim for unbiased universality was inextricable from a global account of the past in which Europe was the final bearer of civilizational virtues in the present. Islam (or any other collectivizing descriptor) was historically important only when it could be placed relative to modern Europe.

This posture resulted in two significant imperatives. First, it turned the particulars of Leitner’s understanding of current European history into abstract universals. As he stated explicitly, Europe was in a bad way in the past, a situation whose worst example were the Crusades. Since that period, however, Europeans had forsaken religious bigotry (dini ta’assub) and adopted forms of representative government. Their current intellectual, political, and economic ascendancy, evident from the worldwide dominance of European empires, were a direct result of these changes. Importantly, Europeans had accomplished all this without becoming irreligious. Rather, the Protestant transformation of Christianity meant that they were religious in the correct way, without being impeded by religion’s negative aspects.

Leitner’s prescription was that Muslims must follow a similar path and strip Islam to the basics found in all religions. By doing so, they could occupy the same position in the world as Europeans. The correct understanding of Islamic history was critically important for Leitner’s mission. Objectifying the Islamic past into a proper history meant to root out anything that did not have proof, was not “useful” according to principles espoused by Europeans, and did not fit into the story of universal progress leading up to current European dominance (Leitner, Sinin-i-Islam, 1:6–11).

A history of Islam constructed on this pattern would be synonymous with the universal history of civilization. By extension, Islam would become a name for universal religion, to which only the bigoted among non-Muslims would have any objection. As Leitner stated in an extempore address at South Place Chapel, Finsbury, in 1889, Muhammadanism “is pure Judaism plus proselytism, and original Christianity minus the teaching of St. Paul. … [H]e is a better Christian who reveres the truths enunciated by the Prophet Muhammad” (Leitner, Muhammadanism, 5, 12).

The second major consequence of Leitner’s perspective on civilizations was that it required Islam to be evacuated of certain types of specificity. In the historical context, all that could be particular to Islam were names of peoples and groups professing belief in it. These could be extracted from chronicles and other sources. The sources’ contents other than names were then to be judged based on what counted as proof according to nineteenth-century epistemological principles. A kind of universal sociology pertaining to matters such as the relationship between the rulers and the ruled, competition among elites, and so on, whose principles were derived from views on European societies and history, was the ultimate arbiter of value in the Islamic sources. Whatever else was there—contents of differences of opinion among intellectuals, dynamics specific to the societies in question, and so forth—was more than what could be accommodated in this version of history.

The Sinin-i-Islam lives up to this prescription quite well, which is precisely why it would have appeared vacuous to its intended audience. Not only did it fail to provide a past on which to live—as Muslims were accused of doing as a major shortcoming—but its narrative drive was also meant for an orientalist audience who could find the same story told better and in greater detail in European languages.

Orientalists, Muslim Scholars, and Islamic History

The erasure of content between the sources and the final narrative in the Sinin-i-Islam has a counterpart in the social conditions that made orientalist scholarship possible. For all the insistence on proof, Leitner’s work does not provide any references, stating historical “facts” in an impersonally authoritative voice.

In the English introduction to the first volume, he acknowledges “the assistance that Maulvi Muhammad Hussain has given me in the preparation of this work. It owes to him any elegance which its Urdu style may possess” (Leitner, Sinin-i-Islam, 1:2). This acknowledgment is absent in the selection from the introduction to the first volume reprinted in the second volume. Both the English and the Urdu title pages to the first volume list Leitner as the sole author. This is the same for the English title page of the second volume, but the one for Urdu adds “with the aid of Maulvi Karim ad-Din, District Inspector of Schools, Amritsar.” Between these hints, there is a begrudging affirmation that at least the language of Sinin-i-Islam owed its genesis to the supposedly ignorant Maulvis who were meant to learn their own past from Leitner.

The person Leitner identifies as Maulvi Muhammad Hussain is better known as Muhammad Hussain Azad (d. 1910), a celebrated intellectual and literary figure among Muslims in India in the late nineteenth century. An Urdu poet and stylist, Azad wrote works on the literary history of Persian and Arabic. During his tenure as the principal of Government College in Lahore, Leitner was responsible for Azad’s appointment as assistant professor of Arabic and his place as a prominent participant in the city’s associations aimed at educational and literary regeneration. Azad’s public statements address Leitner as a great benefactor for local intellectual causes, a type of European scholar and administrator who was rare in the colonial milieu. His formal notes that were read out aloud in public on the occasion of Leitner’s departure from Lahore in May 1869 and arrival back in March 1870 affirm Leitner’s own claims about his attitude to peoples and languages whose cause he espoused during his time in India (Azad, Maqalat, 390–396).

Behind the scenes, the relationship between Leitner and Azad had soured by 1871 at the latest. The full details of this affair are unavailable, but it seems that the rift had to do with the local reaction to the first volume of Sinin-i-Islam and Azad’s lack of cooperation with respect to the second volume. Among Azad’s numerous preserved letters to Leitner is a bitter remonstrance that includes his ambition to defend Sinin-i-Islam against the charge of a faulty framework. Although affirming Leitner’s work, he writes the following:

I am not sorrowful of my own ruin since whoever else hears this is equally sorrowful. If you will ground me into dust at the hands of enemies, that does not bother me, because my pride is not in salary, position, or rank. I will sit in the same dirt, say prayers for you, and write such things on tree leaves and scatter them around that whoever will read will think, with regret, who was it, after all, who treated someone in this way. Even if I am murdered, what I have managed to write so far is enough to make people and the world weep. There is left neither a place for complaint nor the time for remonstrance. It is the moment for me to go out, under the imperative of my promise, to tear open my chest to show what injuries I have suffered. Even these injuries are dear to me because they were inflicted by you (Azad, Makatib-i Azad, 76–77).

Azad’s complaints against Leitner may have been for circumstantial reasons and Leitner’s propensity for antagonizing people. However, they are connected to a general contest over the rights of representation. In the colonial context, Azad had no option but to treat Leitner as a learned patron. On this score, the cooperation between the two likely reflects an appreciation for each other. But within Azad’s own agenda for a literary and political revival among Muslims in India, the Sinin-i-Islam was, at best, a primer meant for beginners that he attempted to make more palatable using his Urdu compositional abilities. It certainly did not hold the grand transformational role Leitner indicated for it in the introduction. We can be sure of this based on Azad’s sophistication as a historian of languages and literatures.

Orientalist endeavors such as Leitner’s Sinin-i-Islam are tied closely to intellectual fashions of the times. While claiming freedoms brought by new methods, they transmit an intellectual narrowing of horizons tied to presumptions about proofs, causality, and the nature of the knowable past. When it comes to history, orientalists’ self-representation misses the fact that modernity is as much a trap as it is a source of liberation from earlier modes of representing the past. To my understanding, modern intellectual forms are unexceptional when it comes to this kind of epistemological blindness. Other sections in this chapter provide details of instances in the conceptualization of Islam as a historiographical object in other contexts where we see the same process play out to results having to do with intellectual and sociopolitical specificities of other times.

In appraising Leitner and his work, the key point is that the modern understanding of Islam he purveyed belongs to a larger pattern for representing the Islamic past that became dominant in the late nineteenth century and continues to the present. Historical explorations pertaining to Islam that happen today are certainly far richer and more nuanced than what we find in Leitner’s work. But a very significant proportion of such work remains tied to an intellectually impoverished understanding of the Islamic past that would fit quite well with Leitner’s vision. Paying attention to structures of understanding embedded in orientalist work from the nineteenth century, we bring forth the possibility of generating narratives that are richer not simply because they cite more sources. Rather, the critique invites a creative reengagement with sources we can see as worthy interlocutors for exploring the Islamic past as a complex repository of thought and practice.

Related Sections in Other Chapters