Tamil Islamic Media

The Amazing Story of an English Spy at Darul Uloom Deoband, 1875.

The time when the Dar al-Ulum, Deoband was established only nine years had passed over the fight for freedom of A. D. 1857.

Since the common Muslims and the elders at the Dar al-Ulum had taken up arms and ranked against the English in this fight for freedom, the English government was very much antagonistic to the Muslims, suspicious of and ill-disposed towards them.

The Muslims activities and movements were being kept under strict surveillance. 

On this account a series of investigations, secret and open, in respect of the Dar al-Ulum continued for a long time. As such, in 1291 / 1875, the governor of Uttar Pradesh (formerly, the United Provinces), Sir John Strachey, sent a trusted man of his, John Palmer, to visit the Dar al-Ulum with the purpose of making secret investigations and report about the objective behind the establishment of the Dar al-Ulum and about the thought and activity the Muslims Ulamah [a term used for Scholars] were engaged in under the cover of this institution.

The report that John Palmer prepared and the impressions that he gathered, he has described in detail in a letter that he wrote to a friend.

The interesting and scholarly manner in which John Palmer has expressed his observations and impressions, comparing the educational condition of the Dar al-Ulum with the English universities, helps a good deal in understanding the educational position of the Dar al-Ulum. This incident occurred during the incipience of the existence of the Dar al-Ulum.

It can be estimated from this as to what the educational standard of the Dar al-Ulum has been from the very beginning.

While this letter consists of details of the Dar al-Ulum’s educational and some other particulars as well as review and criticism, it also brings forth an interesting album of the Dar al-Ulum’s features and its educational peculiarities, based on very profound impressions from the pen of a man,who had had an adverse view-point.

Hence it seems apt that the whole text of the letter is reproduced here.

In a tour with the Lt Governor of the western and northern provinces I happened to stay at Deoband on January 30, 1875. The Governor told me:

“The Muslims here, at Deoband, have started a madrasah against the government. Go there incognito and find out what is taught there and what the Muslims are after”.

Accordingly, on Sunday, 31st January, I reached the habitation. The village is quite clean, the inhabitants are courteous and pious but are poor and miserable.

Making enquiries, I reached the madrasah. Having reached there, I saw a large room in which boys were sitting on a palm-mat with books open before them, and an older boy was sitting in their midst. I asked the boys who their teacher was? One boy pointed out and then I came to know that the fellow sitting in the middle was himself the teacher. [1]

I wondered what kind of teacher he might be.

I asked him, “What do your boys read?”

“Persian is taught here”, he replied.

When I proceeded from here, a man of medium height but very handsome was sitting at one place, with a row of older boys before him. Approaching near, I heard that the science of triangle was being discussed.

It was my guess that considering me to be a stranger they would be startled, but no one paid any attention to me at all.

I went near, sat down and began to hear the teacher’s lecture.

My astonishment knew no bounds when I saw that such strange and difficult theorems of the science of triangles were being expounded that I had never heard even from Dr. Sprenger.

Rising from there when I went to a courtyard. I saw that students, wearing ordinary clothes, were sitting before a Maulvi (Honorific Islamic religious title given to Sunni Muslim religious scholars or Ulamah). Here the variants of the second figure of the sixth article of Euclid were being stated and the Maulvi was speaking off-hand in such a way that it appeared as though Euclid’s soul had entered his body?. [2]

I was agape with wonder.

Meanwhile, the Maulvi sahib asked the students such a difficult question on the first grade of equation from Todd Hunter’s Algebra that I was in a sweat at my own knowledge of mathematics and I was astounded.

Some students solved it correctly.

From here I reached a third courtyard. One Maulvi [3] was teaching a thick tome of Hadith and was all smiles while lecturing.

Climbing a staircase from here, I reached the 1st floor. There were elegant houses on its three sides and in the centre was a small courtyard in which two blind men were chattering.

In order to hear what they were saying, I went near stealthily.

I came to know that they were committing to memory some lesson from a book of astronomy. Meanwhile one blind man said to the other: “Brother! In yesterday’s lesson I could not understand the bridal figure properly. If you have understood it, please explain it to me”.

The other fellow first stated the claim and then proceeded to prove it by drawing lines on his palm and when their mutual discussion was going on, I was wondering, bringing before my eyes the scene of Principal Breggar’s lecture.

Getting up from there I went to a 5 doored room. Small children sitting very respectfully before the teacher were reading books of grammar. In Class III a traditional science was being taught.

I came down by another stair-case. I was under the impression that the madrasah was only this much. By chance I met a man and sought confirmation of my impression from him. He said: “No. The Holy Quran is taught at another place”. When I asked him where?, he took me to the mosque.

     In the courtyard of the mosque, many small children were reading the Quran before a sightless Hafiz. [4] 

The Hafiz caught hold of a small child and thrashed him mercilessly. The child shrieked. I told my guide that it was an oppression to exact such hard work from small children. He laughed and said:

“Apparently it is an oppression, but in fact it is affection. To habituate children from the very beginning with hard work is the very essence of wisdom and in their interest and is very much needed to overcome the hardships to be encountered in future life. Nowadays only this thing of courage and tail has remained among the Muslims and it is because of this that some shattered pieces of Islam still remain with them”.

I said that “Last year I had seen in newspaper [5] that four students had been awarded ‘the turban of proficiency’. Is any one of them present here?”.

“Yes”, he said, “there is one, come along with me and I will introduce you to him”. He took me to a house where a young man was sitting. A thick book was lying before him and ten to twelve students were sitting and reading. Two guns were also lying on one side. I saluted him and he responded with utmost courtesy. I asked him,

“Was the turban of proficiency tied on your head last year”?

“It is”, he replied, “my teachers favor”. 

“What’s this book”? I asked him.

“It is”, he said. “a technical book in the Arabic language. The manager of a press has sent it for translation. Its remuneration has been settled at Rs. 1000/-, I have been translating it for three months and nearly three-fourth of it is finished. The remaining, if it please Allah, will be completed in a month”.

“How are these guns here”? I asked.

He said:

“I am fond of hunting. From seven to ten I teach, from eleven to one I go on hunting and from two to five I translate”.

I asked: “Why don’t you take up same service”? 

He said: “God gives me Rs 250/- per month while I sit at home. Why should I then serve?” [6]

Rising up from here I came to the library. The librarian, welcoming me, showed me the catalogue of books.

I was amazed. There was no subject on which a book was not there.

He showed me another register. It was a muster-roll for the students and was written in a very neat hand. Out of the 210 students on the roll, 208 were present.

I was about to get up when a young man with an incipient beard came and, having saluted, sat down. I asked him who he was.

He said: “I am the vice-chancellor”.  [7]

Then he placed three large registers before me and said: “Please see it; this is the account of income and expenditure for the whole year”.

I saw that the account was written date wise with extreme soundness. From the abstract I learnt that at the end of the last  academic year some money had remained in balance after the expenses.

I wished to have a look at the books but the time was short and evening was about to set in. I was obliged to return.

The results of my investigations are that the people of this place are educated, well behaved and very gentle. There is no necessary subject which is not taught here. The work that is being done in big colleges at the expense of thousands of rupees is being clone here by a Maulvi for forty rupees. There cannot be a better teaching institution than this for the Muslims and I can even go to the extent of saying that it even if a non-Muslim takes education here, it will not be without benefit. I had heard about the existence of a school for the blind in England, but here I saw with mine own eyes two blind men prove mathematical figures on their palms in the way it should be!

I regret that Sir William Muir is not present today otherwise he would have inspected this madrasah with great zest and eagerness and would have given prizes to the students”.


1. He was Maulana Munfi’at Ali Deobandi, teacher of Persian who had been appointed the same year (A.H. 1291 / 1874) after the completion of his education. Initially he served as a Persian teacher and after some years was made Arabic teacher in which capacity he served the Dar al-Ulum till 1318 / 1900.

2. He was Maulana Sayyid Ahmed Dehelvi who was appointed second teacher in A. H. 1285 / 1868 and was made Vice-Chancellor on Maulana Muhammad Yaqub Nanautavi’s demise in A. H. 1302 / 1884. He continued on this post till A. H. 1307 / 1889. He was a matchless scholar of the time in mathematical sciences. Maulana Muhammad Oasim Nanautavi remarks “The Beneficient Lord has endowed Maulavi Sayyid Ahmed with such ability in and affinity with the mathematical arts that the inventors of these sciences too perhaps had had this much only.” (Report for A. H. 1293 / 1876, p. 13).

3. This is a reference probably to Maulana Muhammad Yaqub Nanautavi, the vice-chancellor. From the very inception he had been appointed to this post.  – Sayyid Mahboob Rizvi.

4. That is Hafiz Namdar Khan, a resident of Bassi, District Muzatfarnagar. In the second year of the establishment ot the Dar al-Ulum, when the Quran class was started in 1284 / 1867, he was appointed its teacher and for nearly 55 years i.e till 1339/1920, he taught this class and produced a vast circle of Huffaaz including several teachers of the Dar al-Ulum.

5. This was the earliest stage of the life of the Dar at-Ulum but it seems from John Palmer’s sentence that the conditions and particulars of the Dar al-Ulum were published prominently in the newspapers, which means that even in those incipient days the Dar at-Ulum was deemed to have achieved a central and distinguished position.

6. Most probably he was Shaikh al-Hind. He had completed his studies in 1290/1874 and had been appolnted as teacher without pay in A.H. 1291. Among those who graduated in A. H. 1290 / 1873, Shaikh al Hind alone was an inhabitant of Deoband. And he was very fond of hunting also. It is regrettable that the book under translation referred to by John Palmer could not be traced.

Note: Shaykh al-Hind Maulana Mahmud Hasan [may Allah be pleased with him] is not to be confused with another great Islamic scholar,  Mufti Mahmud al-Hasan popularly referred to with the title ‘Faqeeh ul Ummah’ meaning ‘Jurist of the Muslim community’ who is also a graduate of Deoband.  – Blog author.

7. That is Maulana Rafi al-Din, Vice Chancellor of the Dar al-Ulum from 1284 / 1867 to 1286 / 1869 and again from 1288 / 1871 to 1308 / 1888.

This letter is a translation from the Urdu version of John Palmer’s letter. As a spy he might have known Urdu and Persian well. Unfortunately the compiler of this history. Maulana S. M. Rizwi died of heart failure on 25th March, 1979 otherwise he could have supplied the original English text, if there was any. – Murtaz Husain F. Quraishi, the translator of the book into English.

[Source: Pg. 135, Volume 1, History of Dar al Ulum Deoband, by Sayyid Mahboob Rizvi and translated into English by Prof. Murtaz Husain F. Quraishi]

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