Thursday, 7 August 2014

The Islamia college century

Islamia College Peshawar turns 100 (1913-2013)
Note: A variation of this piece was originally published in The News, November 16, 2009.
By Aziz Akhmad

The idea of building the Islamia college first sprouted in the minds of its founders in 1909. The work on the building started in 1912, and within a short period of time the main college building along with a high school and three hostels was completed, in 1913. The college was elevated to a university in 2007.

When one looks at the old, faded, black-and-white pictures of the college taken at the time, one can’t help noticing the stark contrast between this amazingly beautiful brick building and the surrounding wilderness. It is as if the building was delivered, overnight, by a genie to grant a boy’s wish in a fairytale.

Actually, there were two “boys” in this fairytale, one a British and the other a native. They, after making their wish, which was not much different from a child’s fantasy, transformed themselves into a powerful duo of genies and delivered this jewel of a building along with a blueprint of modern liberal arts education.

The British “boy” was George Roos-Keppel, a “soldier-sahib,” that peculiar breed of British officers in India whose careers crisscrossed between army and civil service and who, during their long stints in the frontier regions, got to understand the native people so well that their relationship developed into one of mutual respect and admiration. He was a three-times chief commissioner (equivalent of governor) of the province between 1908 and 1919. He not only spoke fluent Pashto but also wrote books on Pashto language and grammar.

The native “boy” in the story was Sahibzada Abdul Qayyum, a Pakhtun. He started his career as a naib-tehsildar and, through diligence and loyalty to the service, after serving in different districts and tribal Agencies, became Political Agent of the Khyber Agency. After retirement, Sahibzada Abdul Qayyum joined politics, but that is another story.

Keppel-Qayyum was a synergic pair. They had the vision, drive and the influence to raise the required funds for their project. The names of these two individuals are synonymous with Islamia College Peshawar just as Sir Syed’s is with Aligarh Muslim University. Their life-size paintings hang in the main congregation hall of the college, named Roos-Keppel Hall.

The college was modeled after the Aligarh Muslim College, which, in turn, tried to emulate Oxford and Cambridge. Black sherwani, which became the college uniform, was an import from Aligarh.
Islamia college was conceived as a liberal arts college, aimed at imparting general knowledge of social and physical sciences and developing intellectual capacities of students, as opposed to professional, vocational or technical college imparting education in specialized fields.

Notwithstanding the prefix “Islamia”, the college was not meant to, and did not, give priority to religious studies over social and physical sciences and languages, which formed the core of college curriculum.
The college emblem, painted on the fa├žade overlooking the college quadrangle, carried the inscription, “Rabb-i-zidni ilma” (O Lord, enhance me in my knowledge), which, down the years, has been copied by countless schools and colleges all over the country as their emblem. (By the way, this was the only scriptural inscription anywhere on the college or hostel walls.)

The Maulana we miss

All pictures via Islamia college website
The religious instruction in the college was limited to a weekly one-hour class of what was then called deeniyat (now changed to Islamiat), held in the college mosque, taught by Nurul Haq Nadvi, popularly known as Dean Saib, for he was the dean of the Faculty of Theology.
Dean Saib was an unforgettable character. Older college alumni may not remember many of their teachers, but everyone you talk to remembers Dean Sahib and will fondly tell you a story or two about him.

Unlike the present-day maulanas of different stripes, who wear long beards, a variety of exotic attire and a permanent stern expression, Dean Sab wore a short and tidy beard, a round karakul cap, a well-tailored sherwani and shalwar --- and an easy smile. In the afternoons, he was seen on the college tennis courts, in white shirt and trousers (the standard tennis dress those days), playing tennis.
Other than receiving his formal religious education in Nadva, Lakhnow, Dean Sahib had also spent time at Jamia al-Azhar, in Egypt. His sermons were not the usual fire and brimstone we hear these days from the loudspeakers. They were mostly about ikhlaqiat, that is, etiquette, manners and morality. He talked more about life in this world than in the hereafter. He never talked of divisive religious issues.

Dean Saib had an impish sense of humor. He observed students, both on and off campus, and then used those observations in the class to talk about social niceties and etiquettes. His “advisories” generally came as digressions from the main lecture. They were blunt but laced with humor. For example, when he noticed during the inspection tours of hostels (a weekly routine carried out by different faculty members) that some students had their portraits framed and hung in their rooms, or displayed on their bedside tables, he digressed in his next lecture to talk about narcissism (self love). Sensing that the students may not understand a nuanced message, he summed it up bluntly: “Displaying your own portraits on the wall makes your room look like a barbershop, naai ki dukaan”. Everyone understood that, and many, if not all, portraits came off the walls and the bedside tables in the hostels.

Of course, Dean Saab also talked about the early history of Islam and the importance of some of the religious rituals, but his sermons were most interesting when he digressed, which he often did, and talked of day-to-day human behavior. And we always looked forward to those digressions.
A first-year student once walked into the mosque, in the deeniyat class, wearing shorts. It was soon after the physical training (PT) class in the morning and he didn’t have the time to change into regular college uniform. Also, he was new to the college --- and had an English mother.
Dean Sahib gave him a quizzical look and said: “Bachiya, za, nan sta chhutti da, o bia uniform ke raza.” (Son, take the day off today, and next time come in college uniform.) There was no anger in his admonition, only amusement. When the boy left, Dean Sahib told the class, rather impishly, “bare legs can be distracting”. The boys giggled and elbowed each other in the ribs.
We went to Dean Saib’s class for such nuggets, not for angry sermons.

- The writer twitters at @azizakhmad and his email address is

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