Nawab Tafazzul Hussain Khan, 1727-1800

Arif Abid of Karachi, Pakistan, has kindly given 3 Quarks Daily permission to publish his fascinating short study of Nawab Tafazzul Hussain Khan. If anyone knows of further primary sources of information on Nawab Taffazzul Hussain Khan, Mr. Abid would appreciate an email at [ arifabid at ]


By Arif Abid

“……he taught mathematics in the morning to students in Calcutta, then visited English friends until noon. In the afternoon he taught Imami law, and after supper expounded Hanafi law. In the evenings he read philosophy alone”.

      –Abd al-Latif Musawi Shushtari

Alas! The zest of Learning’s cup is gone;
Whose taste ne’er cloy’d, tho’ deep the draughts;
Whose flavour yet upon the palate hangs
Nectareous, nor Reason’s thirst assuag’d
But yes; – rent is the garment of the morn;
And all dishevell’d floats the hair of night;
All bath’d in tears of dew the stars look down
With mournful eyes, in lamentation deep:
For he, their sage belov’d, is dead; who first
To Islam’s followers explain’d their laws.
Their distances, their orbits, and their times,
As great Copernicus once half divin’d,
And greater Newton proved: but, useless now,
Their work we turn with idle hand, and scan
With vacant eye, our own first master gone.

      –Verse from an elegy written by Mirza Abu Talib in praise of Tafazzul Hussain Khan

These extracts refer to Khan-e-Allama Nawab Tafazzul Hussain Khan (1727-1800), a man who embraced and promoted modernity and the scientific outlook in the formative phase of British imperialism in the sub-continent. In his lifetime he was acknowledged as the harbinger of a new age and given the high accolade of Khan-e-Allama. However, his legacy was still born. It would not be an exaggeration to say that the contemporary sub-continental psyche was formed essentially during that period when we made our first substantial contact with a new civilization which brought with it an altogether different world view, a world view with which we still have an uneasy and disjointed relationship. Two hundred years after his death we still find ourselves adrift in this world because of the absence of a scientific outlook and our own vision of modernity. It is critical that we study that period and find out what factors brought this about and what it has made of us. Was it that, as a colonized people, we imbibed the draught of modernity from a poisoned chalice?

We are still living in an age of imperialism. In these straitened circumstances, with our backs to the wall, there is still a reluctance to learn from history. This is an opportune moment to look back at that earlier age of imperialism and the life of a man who tried to build bridges between traditionalism and modernity. Tafazzul Hussain Khan was of Kashmiri descent where his grandfather was a highly ranked Mughal official. Born in Sialkot, his father moved to Delhi when he was around fourteen. In Delhi “he studied rational sciences by the Nizami method”. When his family moved to Lucknow, he “had an opportunity to study at Farangi Mahal itself, working with Mulla Hasan. He asked Mulla Hasan so many difficult questions that the Farangi-Mahalli finally hurled his book to the ground in exasperation and expelled him from the classroom. Tafazzul then studied on his own, mastering difficult philosophical works by Avicenna in Arabic”.

He later came to the attention of Shuja-ud-Daula, Nawab Vizier of Oudh, who appointed him as tutor to his second son, Sadaat Ali Khan. During this period and when the capital moved from Faizabad to Lucknow, Tafazzul made friends with some of the British settled there.

This was the beginning of a new phase in his life. While he continued with his work in mathematics and philosophy he ‘……began the study of the English language… two years he was not only able to understand any English mathematical work but to peruse with pleasure the volumes of our best historians and moralists.’

In 1788 he was appointed as Ambassador to the British capital at Calcutta.

It is time we hear directly from the man holding centre stage, and what would be more appropriate than doing so in one of the languages recently learnt by him – English. Here is an extract from a letter to his friend David Anderson in Edinburgh.

‘I have’, he says, ‘been unfortunately compelled to supply the place vacated by the death of Raja Govind Ram. It was not without reluctance that I accepted the offer…… Had Lord Cornwallis not encouraged me to hold my connections with public affairs, it would have proved very difficult to me to manage the office in which I was put by the imprudent importunity of my superiors.’

The final phrase –’imprudent importunity of my superiors’- elegant yet strong, kept coming back to my mind and I try to imagine the person who wrote it: independent, passionate and at odds with his ‘superiors’. This conflict would grow and have disastrous consequences.

In the event, Tafazzul’s move to Calcutta proved to be a fortuitous one; he was to spend the next ten years of his life there. Sir William Jones had already founded the Asiatic Society of Bengal where linguists and mathematicians had gathered to study the literature and sciences of the sub-continent. Tafazzul made friends in this circle and it was probably now, if not earlier, he began the study of Latin, the language of classical learning in Europe. He would later add Greek to his repertoire.

Tafazzul’s interests were in both modern and ancient literature, but his first love would always remain mathematics and astronomy. Reuben Burrows, the mathematician, writes: ‘ Tofuzzel Hussein continues translating the Principia of Newton (from Latin to Arabic) and I think we shall soon begin to print it here in Arabic….He has likewise translated Emerson’s Mechanics, and a treatise on algebra (that I wrote for him) in Arabic. He is now employed in translating Appollonius de Sectione Rationis. The fate of this work is singular; it was translated from Greek into Arabic, and the Greek original was lost; it was afterwards translated from Arabic into Latin, from an old manuscript in the Bodleian library; the Arabic of it is now totally lost in Asia. I translated the Latin version into English and from the English Tofuzzel Hussein is now rendering it into Arabic again.’

William Jones would write to a friend “….Tafazzul Hussain Khan is doing wonders in English and Mathematicks (sic).”

Apart from his work in the rational sciences he ‘contributed a number of discourses on works related to the Hadis, the tradition of the Holy Prophet and jurisprudence and on Islamic philosophy and sciences; these studies were so numerous and varied that something of their kind had rarely been attempted by other scholars.’

Learning also involved a process of un-learning and the new scientific verities were publicly discussed and debated. One recorded instance concerns Copernicus’s theory that the earth revolved around the sun instead of the earth being the centre of the universe. Tafazzul publicly stated that Copernicus was right, leading to the orthodoxy raising a hue and cry when their traditional beliefs were disputed. Tafazzul’s response was that the Prophet had said that you must seek knowledge even if you have to go to China. Such was his standing that the matter rested there.

Tafazzul’s influence was far reaching and a contemporary, Abd al-Latif Shushtari, who was the Ambassador of Hyderabad to the British in Calcutta, describes him thus: ‘Tafazzul was respected by the scholars of Europe and people from every part of the country paid respect to his excellence. In fact, his merits, scholarship and learning entitled him to a higher status. It required a lifetime to write about his merits. The entire India and its people were proud of Tafazzul and paid high respects to him and venerated him for his scholarly attributes. It has been since ages that a scholar of Tafazul’s stupendous intellect was born’.

Lord Cornwallis later revealed further dimensions to his thinking on his ‘connections with public affairs’ and in a subsequent letter to David Anderson, written in Persian, Tafazzul says: ‘……. he thought of sending me as Resident, on the part of his government, to the Nizam Aly Khan, but as I had been long absent from home, and found it difficult to even remain at Calcutta, I saw that it would be out of my power to undertake so distant a journey’.

Tafazzul’s life had started taking on some of the elements of Greek tragedy, products of a culture whose ancient civilization he admired and whose language he was learning to enable him to drink deeply from it. His abilities were now coveted by both the English and the ruling family of Awadh and his strengths were to become his Achilles heel. The former, a progressively more ambitious and powerful force in India, both economically and politically, though it had still not gained the strangle-hold that it would in the coming decades. As for the latter, it was a medieval monarchy with limited vision and ambition, which had already partially surrendered its sovereignty to the British after the defeat at Buxar. In this world of volatile and contradictory forces ( a chimera to put it in a nutshell), whose definitive direction had still not fully manifested itself, Tafazzul was having to fend his way. Tafazzul’s own vision, inherent in his life’s work, to facilitate the natural progression of the sub-continent from medievalism to modernity, was not of interest to either side. Each had their specific need of him which they expected fulfilled.


Awadh had been a province of the Mughal Empire, but had become independent as the empire entered terminal decline, though they still paid symbolic homage to the emperor. In the late eighteenth and nineteenth century it was the richest province in the sub continent and Lucknow was to become the largest metropolis with a population of around a million. In 1764, Shuja ud Daula made the critical mistake of taking on the British and lost a decisive battle at Buxar. After signing a treaty with them that made substantial concessions he regained his kingdom.

Shuja ud Daula was succeeded by his eldest son Asaf ud Daula. One of his first acts was to move the capital from Faizabad to Lucknow to escape the interference in his dissolute ways of his mother, the Bahu Begum. It was an apt beginning for Lucknow as it was to become a world of fantasy and excess, where poetry and sensuality were the ruling spirits. For all its achievements, and there were indeed many, its guiding principle was to escape from the harsher realities of life. However, in all fairness, it has to be mentioned that the British reduced them to the status of puppets and revenue collectors which suited their purposes.

The real world intruded but rarely; and in Asaf ud Daula’s case it was usually when he had to pay the annual subsidy to the British and he found the treasury empty. Profligate, vain, pusillanimous, he allowed the British to impose more and more demands on him and now, apart from conducting the defense of his realm and controlling its foreign relations, he allowed them to have the final okay on the selection of his prime minister. Sir John Shore had taken over from Lord Cornwallis as Governor General and he found the serving prime minister, Jhau Lal, inimical to the British. Moreover, not only were there no funds to pay the subsidy, there were loans outstanding and corruption was rampant. This was 1797 and Tafazzul Hussain Khan was still in Calcutta.

‘….the former must be the object of my choice as he was of the Vizier’s and the Board who so well know his worth, his abilities, his extensive knowledge, and the energy of his character and his high reputation’.

‘….my efforts to persuade Tafazzul Hussain Khan to accept the office, and I feel the sincerest satisfaction as my success was only because I have the highest respect for his talents and integrities’.

‘….he undertakes the office with a reluctance that nothing but my influence and solicitations could have subdued’.

These entries on Tafazzul are in Sir John Shore’s papers regarding his appointment . Shore, in his self-congratulatory mood, is completely blind to his specious reasoning. Whatever Tafazzul’s qualities, none of them point towards his ability to exercise power. In fact, he was a soft spoken, mild mannered man who ‘never changed his courteous and egalitarian behaviour towards the poor and the weak’. Furthermore, what stands out is that not once does Shore show any sensitivity to Tafazzul’s feelings on the matter. Even the editor of the Asiatic Annual Register, who lived in London and had never met Tafazzul, concedes in his obituary: ‘….an appointment not at all suitable to his inclinations, as literary fame, rather than political preferment, was the object of his ambitions’. I have found no record of Tafazzul’s own thoughts on this appointment. He could, of course, no longer use the excuse of having to go far away from home as Lucknow was home, or of already being in the employ of Asaf ud Daulah. Ironically enough, the one oblique reference to it I found is from Shore in his tribute to the man in his obituary. He says: ‘ ….he proved his disinterestedness, by declining to receive the usual emoluments of a most lucrative office, and by confining himself to the receipt of a salary, barely adequate to his expenses. An uncommon instance of moderation and self denial’. Shore’s perceptions seem misdirected; I would have thought that Tafazzul was aware of the situation that he was getting into and wanted to show the Awadhis that self interest was not a motivating factor plus he wanted to maintain a degree of independence. Shore is, apart from everything else, an enigmatic and unreliable witness. He says Tafazzul was ‘between forty and fifty’ when he started to study the English language; he was actually fifty five. Then there is Shore’s Freudian slip in the same tribute: ‘…his honour unimpeached’. What had happened, but was left unsaid, since his earlier statements that he had to assert this point?

Thus we had the strange, even ludicrous, spectacle of the leading mathematician of the country reluctantly making his way to Lucknow to, amongst other things, introduce economies, sort out the account books and produce a surplus so that the subsidy could be paid.

This is not supposed to be a history of Awadh so I will paraphrase. Tafazzul took over the reins of office around April 1797. Asaf ud Daula fell ill in July 1797. Refused to take medicine. Died 21 September 1797. Succeeded by Wazir Ali Khan, his eldest son and supposedly his designated heir. He is 16 years 5 months and 3 days old at the time of his accession.

The ruler and his chief executive could not have been more different from each other. Tafazzul, 70 years old and a Khan e Allama, a scholar used to patiently labouring at every new undertaking, rigorously meticulous, searching for truth in theoretical disciplines and at all times seeking to enlarge and enrich his culture. Wazir Ali, not yet past his teens and suddenly vested with power and responsibility, brash, callow and smarting from all his observations over the years of seeing his father acting subserviently to the British. What exacerbated this situation was that Tafazzul was, after all, the choice of the British and perceived as prejudiced in their favour.

It was a loaded situation, which soured and deteriorated, becoming more complicated with time as other players entered the fray and Wazir Ali made desperate efforts to become independent of British influence. Relations between the two reached breaking point. Tafazzul sent a message to Wazir Ali through a friend to be patient, but it was ignored. A sensitive man, Tafazzul fell ill from exhaustion. Lucknow was rife with rumours that Wazir Ali wanted to kill Tafazzul and when he visited him at his home with 800 armed men the obvious conclusions were drawn. This did not happen, but Tafazzul found himself in dire straits caught in the cross fire between the imperial imperative of a grasping power and the bumbling efforts of a frustrated Nawabi trying to regain its sovereignty.

The mirror, which Shore had never looked at anyway, had cracked. All the contradictions inherent in the situation came to the fore. Tafazzul wrote to Shore: ‘As far as I can judge there is no possibility of remedying and arranging matters without coercion. Wazir Ali bears no resemblance to Asaf ud Daula. He is totally devoid of fear and apprehension and has been led through ignorance and by the instigation of the incendiaries about him…’

This was followed shortly thereafter by this letter to Shore’s Persian translator: ‘In the situation I now find myself….it is absolutely proper and necessary for me at all events to get out of this place. The mode of doing this as soon as possible, is now what employs my thoughts. The Governor General and your coming gives me hope of Safety’.

The matter was not going to be as simple as that, especially since Shore was shortly returning to England and he had his own reputation to think of. Tafazzul met Shore on the way to Lucknow and discussions were held. It was decided that Wazir Ali had to be replaced by Tafazzul’s former pupil, Sadaat Ali Khan. Tafazzul’s role in this episode earned him the opprobrium of Awadhis.

Sadaat Ali Khan ascended the musnad in 1798 and, I believe, also assumed the office of prime minister. Tafazzul briefly stayed on in Lucknow and then went again to Calcutta as Ambassador. He surrounded himself with books and led a quiet and reclusive life. The much admired ‘energy of his character’ deserted him and he had a paralytic stroke and died shortly afterwards in early 1800, in all probability a heart broken man.

Sir John Shore went back to England in 1798 and was elevated to the peerage. He was henceforth known as Lord Teignmouth.