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A scholar consigned to insignificance

Thomas Walker Arnold’s impact on scholarship

A scholar consigned to insignificance

Thomas Walker Arnold was a British orientalist, writer, and leading expert on Islamic art in the late 19th and early 20th century. Many of us are supposed to know him but barely do. Arnold is mentioned in passing in our history textbooks or in the standard narrative that circulates in our academic circle(s) by the name of Pakistan Studies.

Description about him is circumscribed only to his being Iqbal’s mentor; it was on his behest that Iqbal later travelled to Cambridge and then to Munich for higher studies. Experts on Iqbal might also know his close friendship with Sir Syed Ahmed Khan, and he wrote his famous book, The Preaching of Islam at his insistence.

Besides being a teacher of Iqbal and a theologian, Salman Nadvi, he was a very close friend of Shibli Nomani who was also a teacher at Aligarh. Hardly any detailed reference to his stay in India spanning over several years can be extracted from available sources. Hence, one is not surprised to find out information about his life and academic career being quite scanty.

Despite Arnold’s strong connection with Aligarh and then Lahore, very little has been written on him in Urdu. The intellectual influence that he cast on Iqbal has not been explored in any measure of profundity. Mercifully Kathrine Watt’s detailed essay, ‘Thomas Walker Arnold and the Re-Evaluation of Islam, 1864-1930’ fills in that yawning gap. That essay appeared in Modern Asian Studies (2002).

In 1988, the University of Birmingham organised a ‘Sir Thomas Arnold Day’ which made public some such facts about Arnold’s life but his career path remained shrouded. Regarding the event at the University of Birmingham, one may surmise that Prof. Saeed Durrani might be instrumental in holding that event.

Prof. Durrani, a physicist by profession who taught at this university for many years, had an abiding interest in Iqbal’s life. While writing this article, I tried to piece together various nuggets of information scattered here and there, including our protagonist’s biographical sketch in Encyclopedia Iranica. The information furnished in the following lines is gleaned from the assortment of these sources.

Arnold was born in Devonport on April 19, 1864 to Frederick Arnold, an ironmonger, and Maltida Sweet. He got his early education at Plymouth High School and the City of London School. He entered Magdalene College, Cambridge University in 1883 and read Classics.

He devoted much of his time to linguistic and Islamic studies and attained proficiency in Sanskrit and Arabic. Any specific reason for his early interest in Islam could not be determined. Interestingly, he entered an essay competition on “Muhammadanism” but remained unsuccessful.

Nevertheless, he persevered in his explorations of Islam and tried to make a difference. In 1888, Theodore Beck, the principal of the Muhammadan Anglo-Oriental College, Aligarh, persuaded him to join his institution as Professor of Philosophy. While at Aligarh, he established cordiality with the British educated Indians (read Muslims) who were vying for a share in government. He quite vehemently pleaded their case in the British political arena.

In 1892, he married Celia Mary Hickson and after four years his daughter Nancy May was born. The same year he published The Preaching of Islam which according to Watt, “was to be an impressive academic oeuvre”. In 1898, he bade farewell to Aligarh and accepted a post as Professor of Philosophy at the Government College, Lahore. Here, he published a translation of Al-Mutazilah, a theological representation of ‘Muslim rationalist Philosophy.’

He later became Dean of the Oriental Faculty at the Punjab University. He went back to England in 1904 and took up employment as assistant librarian in the India Office Library. He remained at that position until 1909. The same year, he was appointed Educational Adviser to Indian students in Britain.

In 1908, Arnold produced a translation of The Little Flowers of Saint Francis of Assisi, the name given to the classic collection of popular legends about the life of St. Francis of Assisi and his early companions. The fifty-three chapters which constitute the Latin work in question seem to have been written before 1328. Translating that text into English was a stupendous undertaking. That work was a testimony, proving that Arnold was much more than an Orientalist.

He was invested as a Companion of the Order of the Indian Empire in 1912 for the services he rendered, particularly in the realm of scholarship.  He functioned as educational advisor to Indian students until 1921, the year of his superannuation. Concurrently, he informally “advised India and Foreign Offices in relation to political negotiations in India and the Middle East.”

That was the time when he also wrote and published, The Caliphate (in 1924). After retirement, he was appointed Professor of Arabic and Islamic Studies at the School of Oriental Studies (now School of Oriental and African Studies) University of London, 1921-1930.

Being well-conversant with the Islamic culture and contemporary developments in the Muslim world, Arnold was one of the pioneers in that field of learning. He published numerous works on representational art. His work like Painting in Islam received international acclaim and recognition.

According to Encyclopedia Iranica, “It set a new standard of scholarship in the subject, for the author’s long apprenticeship in Arabic and Persian gave him free access to the original sources; his deep interest in the religion and culture of Islam enabled him to see Islamic painting in its true setting and proportion.”

Therefore, he was elected to an honorary Fellowship at Magdalen College. Besides, the award of an honorary PhD from Deutsche Universitat, Prague was yet another token of recognition of his contribution to the existing body of knowledge on art, culture and languages.

He was not only elected as a Fellow of the British Academy but the conferral of a knighthood put a final seal on the significance of his scholarly endeavours. He died on June 9, 1930 in London. His impact on scholarship pertaining to the Islamic art would live for a long time to come.

Tahir Kamran

tahir kamran
The author is a historian and teacher based in Lahore.

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