The present study examines the structure of knowledge and its institutional setup, the mode of transmission of learning and its social context, and the politics of power and patronage. Together these components cover a good deal of Islamic(-ate) education in northern India. Knowledge and learning have also been seen in the context of ideology and identity.
The production, acquisition and transmission of knowledge were held in high esteem in Mughal India, and learning held an important place in the religious and cultural world of medieval Indian Islam. In Mughal India knowledge was divided into two broad spectrums: exoteric/worldly knowledge and esoteric/spiritual knowledge. The exoteric knowledge was further classified into two broader categories: rational (maqulat) and transmitted sciences (manqulat). To impart formal learning, there were three grades of education: primary, secondary and higher. There was no separate institution for imparting education at each stage. It was imparted at elementary and lower secondary level in maktab, and at the higher level in the madrasa and residences of scholars specializing in particular subject or branch of knowledge.
In the sources, we do not find a codified curriculum but references to subjects taught and books read are available mainly from the biographies of ulama and Sufis. It can be used to identify subjects taught and books used, more definite for higher level of education. The acquisition of learning at each stage was geared with certain objective in consideration, be it religious, moral, or intellectual consideration. During this period, although, education appears to be heavily influenced by transmitted sciences but the rational and practical subjects became important component from late sixteenth century onwards. The curriculum did not remain static throughout the period; changes took place from time to time such as the reform introduced by Akbar. Over the period, the rational subjects became more in currency as can be seen in the wider popularity of the Dars-i Nizamiya.
The structure of transmission of knowledge consisted of both formal institutions as well as informal channels that served the objective of imparting education. The institutions were important locale for transmission of knowledge but the teacher-student relationship was the cornerstone of education. Here a teacher transmitted less a body of knowledge than an authoritative reading of a text. What the teachers taught depended on his interest and proficiency. Different sets of pedagogical tools were employed to impart instruction such as use of commentary and gloss and discussion in the class. Methods such as muzakara (disputation) were also employed for sharpening reasoning and retentive faculty of students. Teachers did employ innovative methods to teach as well to animate the discussion and stimulate curiosity among the students. At the primary stage, the teacher placed stress on memory and rote learning but with progress of a student, a balance was struck through developing the reasoning faculty and comprehension of the student. Generally, while selecting texts of a particular branch of knowledge, teachers kept in consideration the grasping power, potential, intellectual capability and compatibility of the students. However, in certain cases, students were taught rigorously and inquisitively one or two most difficult texts of a subject with the understanding that once they mastered them, they could themselves understand the easier ones. Though there was no formal method like conducting examinations for testing the knowledge of a student, the process of learning had its own mechanism for evaluation.
In Mughal India, the transmission of learning and production of texts went simultaneously at different levels and through variegated channels. Texts were produced on various kinds of knowledge to propagate learning, to explain or interpret a difficult text, and to deal with controversial issues. Following the Islamic intellectual tradition, texts were produced on the subjects of transmitted sciences (manqulat), such as jurisprudence, exegesis of the Quran and traditions, and rational sciences (maqulat) such as logic and philosophy. The works written in the Islamic educational tradition of Mughal India were heavily concentrated on exegesis, commentary and gloss on some original text or a text based on an original text.
The composition of these texts may have been the result of the desire to protect and preserve the cultural and intellectual achievement of the past. Even when used for the purpose for teaching and transmission, the focus remained constricted to already produced texts whose explication were done through various channels such as commentary or gloss. It shows hiatus in the realm of originality. Both in terms of the choice of new subjects as well as new approaches to old problems the world of scholars was confined to set premises and was limited scope. The spirit of inquiry had made way for taqlid (adherence to a particular tradition) where the ambit of thought and idea was constricted to a fixed limit.
Apart from the texts produced in Islamic tradition, knowledge and ideas were also available from non-Islamic sources‒ Indic and European. Indic knowledge preserved primarily in Sanskrit language was made available and accessible through translation of the texts in which knowledge was embedded. The choice of texts and subject matter deepened on the taste, interest and political objective of the ruling dispensation. Translations conveniently served as a powerful medium for the transmission of ideas and knowledge from people of one linguistic or social group to another. For this to understand, we have to look at the closed worlds of knowledge of the medieval Indian society.
There were two predominant streams of intellectual life in medieval India flowing separately without much ground for interaction or assimilation. Even the languages of expression of these two traditions were different; for Muslims it was Arabic and Persian while Hindus primarily produced in Sanskrit. The Hindus, though politically subjugated, were intellectually independent to articulate and develop their ideas, literature and customs. The learned among them (Brahmans) firmly guarded their body of knowledge, a monopoly which Akbar and his successors tried to break. On the other hand, Muslims found the Indian theories about life and universe quite contrary to their faith which was reflected into aversion of Muslim intellectuals towards the knowledge preserved in Sanskrit.
On the face of presence of diverse sects within Islam in India, there ensued constant struggle to define and identify the ‘true’ body of knowledge representing the pristine Islam. The struggle was singularly carried out and manifested in the realm of production of texts, teaching and public dissemination. In Islam, knowledge was to be implemented in actions, and this resulted into attempt to homogenize the community. A strong element of assertion was the orthodox custodians of Islam who wanted to cast the state in accordance with the prescriptions of the sharia or Islamic injunctions and homogenize the Muslims accordingly. The challenge became more daunting because majority of nobles were Muslims and the subject population non-Muslim. Moreover, neither the ulama nor the Muslim community was monolithic because of the presence of sects and schools of jurisprudence. There was marked presence of the two important sects of Islam, Sunni and Shia. Although Sunni constituted the majority, even among them were four important schools of jurisprudence, and votaries were often at variance with each other. The Sunni orthodoxy asserted towards homogeneity through its collective and even tried to push the state to achieve the objective. In certain cases, the transgression by the political leadership was contested. Of course, the ulama resorted to certain means which were of political connotation. When the emperor Akbar tried to devise his own ways and methods to deal with religious and theological issues, some of the ulama rallied against him and exercised their textual and legalistic power to implicate the emperor for going against the limits of sharia. However, the state had its own considerations while approaching the issue of homogeneity and dealing the problems of religio-intellectual contestation. Its measures had wider ramifications. In fact, in their ideal self image, they embodied the values of the community and saw their work as a collective enterprise. They were attached to a mazhab (school of jurisprudence) which assured continuity and stability both in education and doctrine; and through affiliation with which a scholar became connected with a wide ranging professional and social network. The knowledge, received by a scholar, shaped the intellectual faculty and thoughts of the person.
An effort is also made to understand the sources of funds for institutions of learning and scholars, motives of the patrons behind patronage, and the implication of drying of patronage. The condition and state of scholarship and education depended in a good measure on the patronage that it received. The patrons, in turn, had their own predilection and ideological preferences towards streams of education and knowledge, i.e., what kind of knowledge they preferred to encourage or how interested they were in furthering the cause of learning and which one. Patronage was extended both by the state and individuals to the institutions of learning, scholars and students. Whether given at imperial or sub-imperial level, it was essentially an act of charity with footing in religious practices. For the state the madad-i maash grants were an important means for providing patronage to institutions and scholars. At the private level, affluent people and nobles (acting in private capacity) patronized learning. At both levels, private and state, patronage had social, political and religious function and meaning.
The study of Islamic and Islamicate learning in northern India makes an important contribution to the understanding of structural dynamism and intellectual cultures, textual production and social interface, and the politics of power and patronage.



Defended in

1 Jan 2022 – 30 Nov 2022

PhD defended at





South Asia