A Q&A with writer and historian Muhammad Mojlum Khan, author of The Muslim100 (revised edition 2021), The Muslim Heritage of Bengal (2013), Great Muslims of the West: Makers of Western Islam (2017) and Muslims In British India: The Life and Times of Nawab Abdul Latif (forthcoming).
What inspired you to write The Muslim 100?
Most of this book was written when I was still in my twenties before being revised several times and published by Kube in 2008 (revised edition 2021). The book was written for two reasons: firstly, as a youngster, I was struggling to come to terms with my multiple identities – British, Asian (Bengali), Muslim, European and Westerner. Making sense of who I was in terms of my national, cultural, civic and spiritual identities were really challenging when, existentially speaking, being ‘nothing’ would have been more fashionable at the time. In fact, I was travelling like a rudderless ship in an unpredictable and stormy secular and nihilistic ocean without any direction or purpose.
This state of affairs persisted until my father unexpectedly died at the relatively young age of 56. His sudden death raised serious questions about the meaning and purpose of life, for which I had no answers. During this period, I read philosophy, history, religion and scientific literature extensively. I also joined a British Islamic seminary (Dar al-Uloom) to become familiar with the Dars-i-Nizami curriculum in order to understand and appreciate the traditional Islamic worldview. Slowly things began to make sense, thanks largely to the Qur’an, a direct Divine intervention in history!
At the same time, I became fascinated by Muslim history, culture and civilisation. The remarkable and enduring contribution and achievements of Muslim scholars, philosophers, scientists, writers, reformers, poets and mystics was nothing short of an eye-opener. As George A. L. Sarton, a renowned historian of science, wrote ‘The main task of mankind was accomplished by Muslims…’ How true was this? I read the writings of prominent modern scholars and historians, both Muslims and non-Muslims, and started researching and writing this book to fill a gap in modern Islamic literature, and also to inspire the present and future generations.
What are the key revisions or adjustments made to the new edition?
True seekers of knowledge never cease to learn. As I pointed out in the Preface to the new edition, knowledge is like a sea without any shores or a road without any signs, and the more you travel, the more you learn and discover. During the last 13 years, I read and updated the book based on my on-going study and research, in addition to constructive feedback received from many readers around the world.
For example, in the new edition, I refer to the nineteenth century Indian Muslim reformer as Sir Syed Ahmed (see chapter 93) instead of ‘Sir Sayyid Ahmad Khan’. Why? Because ‘Khan Bahadur’ was a title conferred on him by the British Indian government but the majority of the historians and his biographers have wrongly referred to him as Syed Ahmed Khan. I have also incorporated two new paragraphs to highlight the fact that Syed Ahmed’s educational and reformist agenda was profoundly influenced by Nawab Abdul Latif of Calcutta, which both Eastern and Western scholars and historians of modern India have completely overlooked.
In the same way, I have thoroughly revised and updated the other 99 biographies, in addition to updating the chronology and contributing a new Preface, which I hope the readers will find useful and informative.
Why is Islamic history so important to our Ummah?
Because a quarter of the Qur’an is history. Why? Because the past is a record or register (Diwan) littered with instructive lessons (‘Ibar) for the benefit of the present and future generations. Our past, present and future are therefore interconnected and interdependent. As such, Islamic history is not only about the past, but also about the present and future.
In fact, the Muslim Ummah is the largest and most diverse family on the planet, but currently it is being ravaged by mindless rivalry, dissension, disunity and disorder. If the Prophet (peace be on him) were to visit us today, he would be surprised, shocked and horrified by the pitiful condition of his beloved Ummah. This sorry state of affairs cannot continue anymore. The Ummah of the last Prophet (Khatim al-Anbiya) is bound together by its spiritual identity emanating from the One, but at the same time, it diverges on account of its temporal manifestation of His creative beauty and diversity. An understanding and appreciation of this duality has to be the starting point for the unity and solidarity of the greatest Ummah in the annals of history. But what does this mean in practice?
As I have noted in the Preface to the new edition, the Muslim world is nothing short of an extraordinary melting-pot of different races, cultures, geographies, languages, and ethnicities. An understanding and appreciation of this requires subtlety, nuance and open-mindedness, thus scrupulously avoiding simplistic explanations and sweeping generalisations, especially in our approach to the social, political, economic, cultural and spiritual challenges and difficulties that are currently confronting the Muslim Ummah.
We are living at a critical time in the history of Islam when the prevalence and proliferation of culturally partisan, intellectually inward-looking, religiously sectarian, and politically divisive ideas and thoughts had inflicted untold chaos, damage and destruction across the Ummah – especially in the Middle East, Africa, Persia, Indo-Pak subcontinent. However, the unity and solidarity of the Muslim Ummah always has to be our top priority! This book was meant to be a humble contribution towards achieving this fundamental goal. How? By pursuing a holistic, unifying and inclusive approach to dealing with the Islamic past, present and future, and thereby minimising and overcoming prevailing suspicion, confusion, division and misunderstandings as we travel in tune with the march of time.
Were there certain figures that you were struggling to rank or remove from the top 100?
Deciding who should be included or excluded from such a wide-ranging book as this was a real challenge and difficulty. During the last 1500 years of its history, the Muslim Ummah had been a unique and unparalleled harbinger of learning, culture, architecture, literature and scholarship, being second to no other cultures or civilisations in human history. Exploring and assessing the history and culture of such a great civilisation through the lives, thoughts and achievements of only 100 of its most influential people was certainly not an easy or straight-forward undertaking.
One way to overcome this difficult and challenging task was to rank the individuals according to their influence, without of course overlooking their learning, scholarship, piety or other contributions. This way I was able to explore and assess each individual’s contributions and achievements, and their impact on the Muslim Ummah, as well as humanity as a whole, before deciding whether to include or exclude them from the book. In the process, I had to set aside my personal views and prejudices, and judge and rank each personality on their own merit or demerit, avoiding theological judgements, legal censures, sectarian arguments and political partisanship as much as possible.
Such a neutral and detached approach pleased many readers but it also displeased others. Thus, controversial individuals like al-Hallaj, Ibn al-Arabi, Emperor Akbar and Ataturk were included, but equally eminent personalities like Ibn Hajar al-Asqalani, Ismail Bey Gaspirali, Nawab Abdul Latif, Hamza Fansuri and Sukarno, among others, were excluded. In fact, my approach encouraged many readers to get out of their political, theological, legalistic and sectarian comfort zones, and to look at the history and culture of the Muslim Ummah from other views and perspectives. This process of reflection, self-analysis and realignment was much-needed and long overdue! But ultimately, all goodness is from Him, the Embodiment of Perfection, and all the shortcomings are mine!
Who would be 101 and why?
This is a very difficult question, but if I had to choose one, it would be Nawab Abdul Latif of British India. Why? For several reasons: firstly, he was the only nineteenth century Muslim scholar and reformer who was an equally outstanding linguist and translator, being fluent in Arabic, Persian, Urdu, Bengali and English. Secondly, despite being a star graduate of the historic Calcutta Madrasah, he advocated the need for Muslims to pursue English education and modern Western learning and scholarship as early as 1852, long before any other Muslim scholar and reformer of his generation. Thirdly, he established the influential Mahomedan Literary Society in Calcutta (1863), one of the first Muslim literary societies of the modern era which subsequently inspired Sir Syed Ahmed to form his own Ghazipur Scientific Society a year later (see chapter 93 of The Muslim 100).
Fourthly, along with Dr Mahendralal Sircar (1833-1904), Abdul Latif became a native pioneer of scientific learning and scholarship in nineteenth century British India – a truly remarkable and unique achievement for a humble madrasah graduate! Finally, he was a gifted writer, jurist, magistrate, deputy collector, commissioner, community leader and statesman, having also briefly served as the Prime Minister (Diwan) of the princely state of Bhopal (for more details, see my forthcoming book, Muslims in British India: Life and Times of Nawab Abdul Latif C.I.E).
Discuss a verse or hadith that has stuck with you?
My favourite ayah (Qur’anic verse) is Ayatul Kursi (literally, ‘Verse of the Footstool’), verse 255 of Surah al-Baqarah. The Almighty not only honoured the Qur’an but also honoured the whole of creation by revealing this majestic, mesmerising and meaningful ayah. Please read it as often as you can, especially after the five daily prayers! But on a more personal level, Surah ad-Duha (Morning Brightness) resonates with me more than any other. Like the Prophet (peace be on him), I was an orphan, but He provided shelter for me; I was wandering, and He guided me; I was poor, and He provided for me! Allahu Akbar! (God is Great!)
How do you balance the demands of writing with other responsibilities?
Combing research and writing with work, family and other responsibilities is never easy or straight-forward. Being mindful of the passage of time, gradual decline in health and loss of earnings or livelihood does keep me focussed, and having an understanding and co-operative wife is a blessing! Ultimately, despite the vicissitudes of time and space, the decrees of the Almighty must come to pass, whether we like it or not! He grants as He wishes, and all praise and glory is for Him!
Could you explain the process of research for finding and writing about a certain profile?
Research and writing are two different processes. It is not possible to writing about any aspects of Islamic history, culture or civilisation without first undertaking a thorough and meticulous research on the topic.
In my case, after deciding who or what I want to research, I try to define my subject. This is important for several reasons: firstly, this keeps me focussed on the topic without wandering or digressing into other areas. Secondly, I undertake a multi-layered literature review on the individual or topic concerned, in addition to checking online resources (both paid and freely available sites). This includes reading extensively on the topic including books, monographs, masters and doctoral theses, and journal articles already published. Thirdly, I then carry out a review of current literature, usually recently published books, theses and journal articles for the latest information on the individual or topic of my research.
Finally, for my current book, I went further and ransacked the archives for original documents, papers, letters, diaries, newspaper cuttings and articles. This was only possible through visits to British Library, Bodleian (Oxford), Senate House, Cambridge University Library, School of Oriental and African Studies (London), Asiatic Society Library, old and new bookshops, and many other libraries/institutions in the UK and abroad, in addition to field research in the subcontinent. This also requires considerable dedication, commitment, patience and perseverance, as well as generous support from family, friends and well-wishers. May the Almighty reward them abundantly, here and in the hereafter!
What advice would you give to others who took up writing at a similar life phase? Have you always been a writer?
I started writing very early in life; I was about 13 when I composed my first poems and articles. By the age of 17, my articles and poems were already being published widely. My advice to young and aspiring writers are fourfold:
FIRST: You need to start early and remain wholly dedicated and committed to your task; be patient and preserve.
SECOND: What is your intention for writing? If you are motivated by name, fame or wealth, stick to writing novels like Wilbur Smith, Roald Dahl or Stephen King, but if you are interested in promoting knowledge and raising awareness, understanding and co-operation between different peoples, communities, cultures, societies and civilisations, then be ambitious, humble, fearless, innovative and inspiring!
THIRD: You may not become very famous or wealthy but, rest assured, your contribution and achievements will acquire a life of their own and endure for a long time to come! Why? Because knowledge is immortal!
FOURTH: Remember writing is a Sunan Allah! One of the first things He created was a pen (Qalam) and ordered it to write, hence the Kitab Allah! What can you do better than imitate the WAY of the Almighty?
Where can we follow you (if you wish to share website/social platforms/email)?
My website is: muhammadmojlumkhan.com (set-up by a friend and well-wisher). I am not on any social media platforms. I am too busy researching and writing, and therefore I have very little time for such activities.
Books you would recommend for those interested in Muslim history in English?
For the beginners, I would recommend a series of short biographies of the Prophet, Caliphs of Islam, prominent Muslims including Abu Hanifah, Ibn Sina, Ibn Batutta, etc.
For the initiated, I would recommend A Journey through Islamic History, again published by Kube. Late Professor Muhammad Abdul Jabbar Beg, co-author of this volume, was a notable Islamic historian and my mentor. May the Almighty grant him forgiveness and mercy!
For advanced students, I would recommend Marshall G. S. Hodgson’s magnum opus, The Venture of Islam, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1977 (second edition). Despite being somewhat dated and the author’s Quaker-slant, this 3-volume set is worth reading.
The Muslim 100 - 9781847741769 - Muhammad Mojlum Khan
Who are the Muslim worlds most influential people? What were their ideas, thoughts and achievements? Why is it important to know about Islamic thought, history, culture and civilisation? Find out by reading this book. Revised Edition.