Aḥmad Ibn Muḥammad al-Shirwānī al-Yamānī (1200-1256AH/1785-1840)

Al-Mesri, Ahmed Saleh

The field of Yemeni-Indo intellectual relations is a rich field of studies, particularly the period after which Islam reached the sub-continent of India. Yemen became one of the bridges to Islamic knowledge and Arabic language for Indians. A number of Yemeni intellectuals played an important role in spreading Islam and the Arabic language in India during the various stages of this time period. This study offers Aḥmad b. Muḥammad al-Shirwānī as a case of Yemeni contributions in India during the 19th century. He had arguably the largest and longestlasting impact on the teaching of the Arabic language, and the spread of its literature within the Colonial Islamic educational institutions.

The significance of this work is that it is the first academic study, at least in Yemen, to focus on al-Shirwānī’s life, his social network in both Yemen and India, and his role in cultivating and reviving the Arabic language and literature, both at the Oriental educational centers and at the Royal courts of the Muslim Principalities in India during the 19th century. This study presents al-Shirwānī as one of non-Ḥaḍramī Yemeni intellectuals who had a role in improving and developing the Yemeni-Indo intellectual relations during the 19thcentury, as most of the studies in this field have focused on the Ḥaḍramī scholars. Moreover, it highlights the role of Tihāmah, another regional center, as a theater of intellectual activities and interactions between Yemen and India at that time.

This study concludes that factors such as the sea transportation, the British Colonial and Tihāmah’s educational environment were factors that supported the flourishing of Yemeni scholarship in India. In addition, it reveals that the Yemeni’s contribution to the field of printing and publishing in India dates back to early 19th century. In addition, this study focuses on the British Colonial Administration in India, and their interest in integrating the Arabic language within its educational policy, i.e., teaching their civil servants the oriental languages.

Furthermore, it found out that the Yemenis’ role in reviving and spreading the Arabic language was not only supported by Indian Muslim rulers, but it was also under the patronage of the Colonial British East India Company. It was under their patronage that Muslims schools were built, funded and managed. They hired Aḥmad al-Shirwānī, the first native Arab, as an Arabic teacher, in Fort William College, in Calcutta, to raise the standard of their curriculum development and their teaching. He was the first Arab to serve the Orientalism movement in India, which, at the time, was passing through its flourishing time. Al-Shirwānī was the first Yemeni to contribute to the processes of printing and publishing in India during the 19th century. His name was recorded as the first editor of two important Arabic literature books: ‘Alf Layla wa Layla’ (A Thousand Nights and a Night, the prominent collection of fairytales and other stories of global renown). ‘Al-Qāmūs al-Muḥīṭ’ (Ocean Dictionary, one of the best lexicons of the Arabic language), and ‘Rasāʾil al-Ḥaīwān’ (Treatise of Animals) the eighth treaty of the popular Arabic literature works ‘Rasāʾil Ikhwān al-Ṣafā wa Khillān al-Wafā’ (Treatises of the Brethren of Purity and the Loyal Friends’).

He became the node of a network that spread across Yemen and India, throughout his family, friends, disciples, and acquaintances. Indeed, his publications were the channels of knowledge that connected the intellectuals and scholars in the two regions, especially his book entitle ‘Nafḥat al-Yemen’ (The Breeze of Yemen) which still used as text-book in some Islamic schools in India until the present time. In his own right, Al-Shirwānī was representative of Yemeni literature to 19th Century India.

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Al-Mesri, Ahmed Saleh: Aḥmad Ibn Muḥammad al-Shirwānī al-Yamānī (1200-1256AH/1785-1840). 2016.

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