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Khan, Abdul Wali


Khan, Abdul Wali (1856-1926) anthropologist, antiquarian, collector. Born in 1856 at Sarulia, a village in the district of Satkhira, Abdul Wali was an outstanding scholar. His father, Maulvi Abdur Rouf, was a munsif during the early 19th century. Under the Cornwallis system, a munsif court constituted the lowest rung in the judicial administration and was entirely manned by the native judges denominated as munsifs. Until 1840s, the majority of the munsifs were Muslims, remnants of the Mughal administration, in fact. Maulvi Abdur Rouf was one of those Muslim munsifs. His grand father, Molla Nayeem, was a Persian tutor at fort william college, Calcutta. Molla Nayeem's ancestors, who came from Arabia, are said to have served the Mughal government in various capacities. Abdul Wali thus belongs to a family that was traditionally linked with the Mughal aristocracy, but which was now in decay under the impact of colonial rule.

Like all other children of Muslim aristocratic families, Abdul Wali received language-based instructions at home. With a professional tutor of a traditional school he studied Persian, Arabic, and Urdu, and acquired proficiency in these languages. To acquire an English education, Wali was sent to calcutta madrasa where he enrolled himself as a student in the Anglo-Persian Department. Having passed the Entrance Examination from the Calcutta Madrasa, Wali moved to St. Xaviers College (Calcutta), a missionary institution, in 1883 to complete his BA. However, he could not complete this degree due to financial difficulties. Wali joined as a sub-registrar in the Department of Land Registration in 1884. The nature of his job was such that he had to work in mofussil stations for most of his professional life. It was only at the end of his career, when he became Registrar of Assurances (1911) that Wali moved to Calcutta. Until then, he had lived in rural surroundings. But he made his mofussil life intellectually productive by studying rural society and culture. He collected all kinds of evidence on rural life, institutions and practices, including information on minor cults and castes. Wali applied empiricist methods to his observations and data collections. Alongside his empirical investigations he also made a detailed study of written records in the form of books and manuscripts preserved at various family holdings.

Based on his researches, Abdul Wali wrote thirty-five research reports, most of which were published in the leading learned periodicals of the time such as Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal, Indian Antiquarian, Calcutta Review, Journal of the Anthropological Society of Bombay, Journal of the Bihar and Orissa Research Society, etc. He wrote mostly on local customs and practices, Muslim sects, ethnologies, fakirs, mystics, and other social institutions, issues that had yet not received serious attention from scholars.

His 'Ethnographical Notes on the Muhammadan Castes of Bengal' published in the Journal of the Anthropological Society of Bombay (vol 7, no 2, 1904), explained how Bengal Muslim society, supposed to be caste free, was really stratified into many castes. E N Gait, ICS, Superintendent of Ethnography and editor of the Bengal part of the Census of India (1901) sought Wali's cooperation while writing Chapters iv, vii and xi of the Bengal Census Report for 1901. Wali had earlier questioned the validity of some aspects of the ethnographic observations of Risely and Dalton concerning the Bengalis and published his findings in The Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal (LXVII: 1898; LXVIII: 1899; LXXII: 1903). He wrote several pioneering essays on Bengal fakirs and bauls and minor religious sects. Wali also discovered numerous archaeological sites and monuments. He published the details of his discourses in the Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal (XX, no 7, 1924). In addition, Wali wrote several books portraying Perso-Bengal cultural assimilation. These include Life and Works of Jawad Sabad (1925), Rubaiyat of Abu Said ibn Abul Khayr (1910) and Sorrows of Akhtar (1924). In 1912 the government honoured him with the title of Khan Saheb.

Abdul Wali's died in 1926. In the obituary columns of the Asiatic Society of Calcutta (CLXXIV-CLXXV 1926), Johan Van Manen, (General Secretary), stated his deep honour for his scholarly contributions and his extraordinary talent. The obituary also noted that many world famous social scientists and orientalists of his time were in touch with Abdul Wali.

As an investigator, Wali belongs to the intellectual tradition of dinesh chandra sen andAbdul Karim Sahityvisharad .When he came to Calcutta to settle in 1911, he kept his social life confined to the campus of the asiatic society. Wali was an active member in the executive council of the 'Bongio shahitto porishod'. Abdul Wali enriched the field of Bengal literature and culture as a scholar and oriental historian. [Anwarul Karim]