- Persian Professor in Britain:Mirza Muhammad Ibrahim at the East India Company's College, 1826-44
Persian in Imperial Contexts
Education in Persian, long the predominant language of empire in South Asia, became a powerful and disputed subject within early British imperialism. From the mid-eighteenth century onward, as Indian regional kingdoms gave way before British military and political aggressions, official educational policies and personnel reflected this shifting balance of power. Asian scholar-administrators in India and Britain taught British officials Persian as well as the cultural and administrative forms conveyed by that language. By the early nineteenth century, however, competing British cultural assertions of Orientalism and Anglicization allied to largely displace and degrade Indian professors of Persian. Still, an Iranian educator, Mirza Muhammed Ibrahim (c. 1800-1857), ventured to Britain in 1826 and earned a permanent appointment at the East India Company's College at Haileybury, where he remained until 1844. Thus, even in the heart of the British Empire, Asian professors of Persian could hold prominent, albeit contested, positions.
For centuries, Iranian scholar-officials had emigrated to India where their expertise in Persianate culture and administration secured them honored service within the Mughal Empire.1 Networks of learned masters and madrasas taught generations of young Indian men Persian language and literature in addition to Islamic values and sciences. Further, educational institutions like Farangi Mahall and Delhi College developed innovative and integrated curricula for modernizing Persian-speaking Indian elites.2 Such educational systems received the support of many Muslim rulers across India.
From their initial entry into India, British officers and officials immediately recognized the need to gain control over the Persian language as a tool rather than as a value system. As Cohn explains:
The British realized that in seventeenth-century India, Persian was the crucial language for them to learn. They approached Persian as a kind of functional language, a pragmatic vehicle of communication with Indian officials and rulers through which, in a denotative fashion, they could express their requests, queries, and thoughts, and through which they could get things done. To use Persian well required highly specialized forms of knowledge....3
The East India Company thus wanted to make British mastery of Persian a means for British power, but it did not want its officials to accept the culture inherent in established Persianate educational traditions.
For their part, Iranian and Persianized Indian scholars sought to teach both their high cultural values and also their techniques and technologies of rule to incoming British officials and military officers. They did so not only in India, but also occasionally by traveling to Britain. Inherent in their efforts lay their conviction that Britons who accepted their values would better understand and appreciate Asians. As British military conquests established and then rapidly expanded their colonial presence from the mid-eighteenth century onward, therefore, an asymmetrical cultural conflict developed over Persian education between the incumbent—but gradually being displaced—Asian administrative elites and incoming colonizing Britons.
In India, British military and political assertions following the 1757 battle of Plassey enabled them to frame the terms of the debate over Persian education and its forms of rule as "Orientalist" versus "Anglicist."4 Orientalist policies stressed Persian education, but also increasingly demanded British control over that education. Over time in India, Asian teachers gradually lost out against Britons for control over colonial state-sponsored Persian educational institutions. The Calcutta Madrasa (for Persian and Arabic) and the Sanskrit College in Benares, which the British colonial government established in 1781 and 1792 respectively, allowed relatively central roles for Asian teachers. Yet, Fort William College, which it established in 1800, made Asian teachers subordinates of British professors; indeed, some became hired servants of their British pupils.
Further, Anglicized policies degraded both Indian teachers and Persianate forms of knowledge in favor of Anglophone Westernized ones. Over the decades leading up to the 1830s, Anglicist policies largely came to predominate. In India, the Anglicist "triumph" was marked by Macaulay's famous 1835 "Minute on Education" and the replacement in 1837 of Persian by English as the official language of British rule.
In Britain as well during this period, British Orientalists subordinated Asian teachers institutionally, even...