The British Empire and its effect on Plymouth


Thomas Walker Arnold


Thomas Walker Arnold was an orientalist who was born at 1 Fore Street, Devonport,, on 19 April 1864, the third son of Frederick Arnold, an ironmonger, and his wife, Matilda Christiana Sweet. He was educated first at Plymouth high school, then from 1880 at the City of London School, and in 1883 he won a scholarship to Magdalene College, Cambridge. Although he gained only a third class in the classical tripos he had developed a strong interest in oriental studies under the influence of Edward Byles Cowell and William Robertson Smith, and spent a fourth year at Cambridge studying Arabic and Sanskrit.

In 1888 Arnold was appointed teacher in philosophy at the Muhammadan Anglo-Oriental College at Aligarh, in the United Provinces, India, where he remained until 1898. These ten years had a lasting influence on Arnold's character and outlook. He was among a small band of Englishmen, led by the principal of the college, Theodore Beck, and Theodore Morison, who devoted themselves to the ideal laid down by its liberal-minded founder, Sir Saiyid Ahmad Khan, to reform Islam by a harmonious synthesis of reform culture with western scientific thought and method. Arnold set out with genuine religious fervour to make this ideal a reality. He dressed like a Muslim and founded for students in the college the Anjuman al-Farz, or 'Duty Society', the members of which undertook to work individually for the regeneration of their nation. He acquired a deep understanding of Indian Muslim society and the affection and respect of his colleagues and pupils.

On 20 September 1892 Arnold married Theodore Beck's niece Cecilia Mary Hickson, daughter of George Hickson, wholesale boot and shoe maker; they had one daughter. In 1898 he joined the Indian educational service as professor of philosophy at the Government College (later University) of Lahore. Among those profoundly influenced by his teaching there was Muhammad Iqbal, later one of the leaders of the Indian Muslim community.

Arnold resigned from the Indian service in 1904 and returned to London as assistant librarian at the India Office, holding simultaneously the part-time professorship of Arabic at University College. From 1909 to 1911 he was the first holder of the post of educational adviser for Indian students in England. His services to Indian education were duly recognized by the CIE in 1912 and a knighthood in 1921. On the establishment of the School of Oriental Studies in the University of London in 1917, Arnold was invited to teach part-time. After retiring from the India Office in 1920 he was appointed first holder of the school's chair of Arabic and Islamic studies. His remaining years were devoted to building up the new department, to teaching, and to writing.

Arnold's first major work, The Preaching of Islam (1896), written during his time at Aligarh, placed him at once in the front rank of Islamic scholars and historians and was influential in disseminating the more informed and sympathetic view of Islam which began to prevail towards the close of the nineteenth century. An Urdu translation was published in 1898, and a second, much revised and enlarged, English edition in 1913. It was subsequently translated into Turkish (1925), Persian (c.1936) and Arabic (1947). An edition of a small but important theological text on the Mu'tazilah (1902) was Arnold's only other orientalist publication from India.

Arnold's most productive period of publication came after he had retired from the India Office and from the administrative pressures which had curtailed his research output. His interests fell into two main categories: first, the religion and history of the Arab Islamic world, and second Islamic pictorial art. In The Caliphate (1924; repr., 1965), he surveyed the history of the caliphate from its origins to its final abolition, producing a classic work which became a standard text for several generations of English-speaking undergraduates. In The Islamic Faith (1928) he compressed the work of many years into a sixpenny booklet for a wider public. Articles contributed to James Hastings's Encyclopaedia of Religion and Ethics, 'Persecution' and 'Toleration', suggested the idea of a book on toleration in Islam but this did not materialize. Since 1910 Arnold had acted also as English editor of the premier international reference work, the Encyclopaedia of Islam, himself contributing several articles relating mainly to India.

In his later years Arnold's main interest was Islamic art, a subject in which there had previously been relatively little academic interest and which he helped to build up as a major subject of study. Court Painters of the Grand Moguls (with Laurence Binyon, 1921) and some minor essays preceded the publication of his elaborate study Painting in Islam (1928; repr., 1965), a work which laid the foundations for the scholarly study of the history and technique of Islamic art. His conclusions were summarized in The Islamic Book (in collaboration with Adolf Grohmann, 1929; also in German, Denkmaeler Islamischer Buchkunst). More specific subjects were covered in Bihzd and his Paintings in the Zafarnmah MS (1930) and the 1928 British Academy Schweich lectures entitled The Old and New Testaments in Muslim Religious Art (posthumously published in 1932).

Arnold delighted in teaching, and his humanity and enthusiasm made him an ideal teacher. A careful and precise scholar, he maintained a high intellectual standard and always countered dogmatic judgements with humorous but devastating criticism. Something of a scholastic, keenly interested in medieval thought and religious institutions, and a lover of colour and ritual, he produced a much admired translation entitled The Little Flowers of St Francis (1898, and many subsequent editions), an early demonstration of his feel for literary style. Among his many honours was that of honorary fellow of Magdalene College in 1917, an honorary doctorate of the University of Prague, and election as a fellow of the British Academy in 1926. Arnold died of heart failure at his home, 19 Gloucester Walk, Kensington, London, on 9 June 1930, shortly after returning from a few months in Cairo as visiting professor at the Egyptian University. He was survived by his wife.

by Margaret Deacon


Empire in Your Backyard: Plymouth Article | Significant Individuals




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