The Ancient Universities are the oldest English speaking universities in the world, all founded prior to the year 1600. They are, in order of date, Oxford (1096), Cambridge (1209), St Andrews (1413) , Glasgow (1451), Aberdeen (1495) and Edinburgh (1582). Trinity is the last of these universities, having been founded in 1592. Established almost 450 years ago, Trinity is rich in history and has a legacy of academic excellence and scholarship across disciplines.
The college also has a rich history with non-European studies that is not often brought to light. As Dr. Zuleika Rodgers, the current head of Trinity’s department of Near and Middle Eastern Studies, has stated in past interviews, “from [the college’s] foundation, there were experts in Farsi [Persian], Sanskrit, and even in hieroglyphics and cuneiform”.
And yet, despite being well-known for its academic excellence with alumni including Mary Robinson, Mary McAleese, Samuel Beckett and Oscar Wilde, there are plenty of alumni who are overlooked. One such figure is Professor Mir Aulad Ali.
Born in 1832, Mir Aulad Ali was a 19th century professor of Arabic, Persian and Hindustani at Trinity. While his origins are widely speculated, it is believed that he was originally from the Northern Indian region of Uttar Pradesh and is though to have been Muslim. Uttar Pradesh was one of the provinces of the Mughal Empire – an Indian Muslim empire that originated in Central Asia, but by 1801 had become a vassal of the British East India Company.
Many believe that Ali was ethnically Persian from the name “Mir”. Because of this, it has been speculated that he adhered to Shia Islam, one of the two major sects of Islam practiced by around 10 per cent of the Muslim population and most prevalent in Iran. Some believe his extensive education may have also illustrated the privilege of the ruling Turko-Afghan-Persian class before the Mughal Empire dissolved in 1858. In the wake of the resignation of William Wright as professor of Arabic, Ali was initially appointed to Trinity in 1855. Known around the university as “The Mir”, he provided a unique insight into Ireland’s early Muslim community.
From [the college’s] foundation, there were experts in Farsi [Persian], Sanskrit, and even in hieroglyphics and cuneiform
While a professor, Ali was widely active in charity events and in 1878 received money for the Turkish relief fund, a gesture to express solidarity with the Ottoman sultans of the day who three decades before had sent £1000 to Ireland during the Irish Potato famine. Many speculate that he may have converted to Christianity for tax purposes, however this was never confirmed. His wife, originally from England, never converted to Islam.
He resigned as Arabic professor in October 1861 when he then took the position of Syrian manuscript keeper at the British Library before being appointed a Professor of Arabic and Hindustani that same month, a position he held for over a decade.
Outside of his academic ventures Ali was a fencer and a notable Dublin socialite, often attending the annual Dublin castle ball. Ali was present at official Dublin visits by foreign parties and was one of Trinity’s campus guides when the Queen of Romania visited Ireland in 1893.
Ali was part of one of the earliest migrations of Indians to Europe and was appointed to Trinity just before the first Indian professor of Hindustani was appointed in Britain. It is unclear if he arrived in Ireland from India as some think that he could have been a part of an elite North Indian community that resided in the Paddington neighbourhood of London. Upon moving to Dublin, he resided in a house at 139 Leinster Road, Rathmines.
Islamophobia has been on the rise over the course of the 21st century with Muslims being portrayed negatively in the media. Many forget Muslim figures such as Ali who, as a person of colour during a very racist period, was able to serve as a professor at one of the oldest European universities for four decades.
When he left we don’t know what motivated him to go to Ireland, but clearly if he wasn’t curious about the way people lived or history, he wouldn’t have been able to become a professor
Dr Murat Siviloglu is a professor within the department of Near and Middle Eastern studies who focuses on the Early Modern period within the region and has done research on Ali’s time at Trinity.
“I think he was a product of his age. He was a product of British presence in India. I found some documents regarding his presence at Trinity in the Istanbul archives. He’s a type of person that emerged in the 19th century from what Europeans referred to as the “Orient” but had a substantial amount of knowledge about the Western world so from this perspective he was very interesting”, Siviloglu explained.
When asked why it’s important for the general Trinity population to be aware of him, he went on to say, “I think he shows this culture of diversity was engraved in Trinity’s culture even in the 19th century when such a thing would have been unthinkable. It is something that should be celebrated and embraced today in being a part of Trinity’s history and culture.”
Siviloglu’s principle field of interest is the Ottoman Empire studying scholars such as travel writer Evliya Çelebi, a 17th century Ottoman author from Istanbul best known in the English speaking world for his ten volume book “Seyahatname”, which went on to become one of the world’s largest pieces on travel writing. Discussing the connection between European and Arabic and Ottoman scholars from the Early Modern period, and whether one group overshadows the other, he noted that “what they have in common is a certain curiosity about the world and other cultures. Evliya left his country and travelled for 30 years from Austria to Egypt to understand how people lived.”
I think he shows this culture of diversity was engraved in Trinity’s culture even in the 19th century when such a thing would have been unthinkable
“Mir Aulad Ali is a bit more complicated than that”, he continued. “When he left we don’t know what motivated him to go to Ireland, but clearly if he wasn’t curious about the way people lived or history, he wouldn’t have been able to become a professor.”
Mir Aulad Ali died in 1898 due to a heart attack. Efforts to have an Imam (a person who leads Muslim prayers) at his funeral failed. Ali was buried in Mount Jerome Cemetery and had one son with his wife.