ʿABD-AL-ʿALĪ MOḤAMMAD BAḤR-AL-ʿOLŪM, a leading 18th century Indian theologian of the Ḥanafī school. Born in Lucknow in 1144/1731, he was the son of Mollā Neẓām-al-dīn (q.v.), a member of the Ferangī Maḥal family and founder of the Dars-e Neẓāmīya. ʿAbd-al-ʿAlī studied under his father and, sometime after the latter’s death, succeeded him. But he was not destined to stay in Lucknow. From time to time quarrels flared between the prominent Sunni families of Lucknow and the Shiʿia court of Awadh established by Borhān-al-molk Nīšāpūrī in the early 18th century. After being drawn into one of these quarrels, ʿAbd-al-ʿAlī felt that it would be better if he left Awadh. He moved first to Shahjahanpur, where he stayed for twenty years, and then to Rampur for four years. Subsequently, he was invited by Monšī Ṣadr-al-dīn of Burdwan to join madrasa at Buhar (Bengal), and later by Navvāb Vāllaǰāh Moḥammad ʿAlī Khan of Karnatak (Arcot) to go to Madras. Since the Navvāb came from the village of Gopa Now in Awadh, he was well acquainted with the achievements of the Ferangī Maḥal family. The Navvāb bestowed the title malek-al-ʿolamā on ʿAbd-al-ʿAlī, built him a madrasa, and provided stipends for him as well as for his large retinue of companions and pupils. Some of these stipends were continued by the Navvāb’s successors and by the British. ʿAbd-al-ʿAlī never returned to Lucknow. He died in Madras in 1225/1810 and was buried in the Vāllaǰāhī mosque.

As a teacher and writer ʿAbd-al-ʿAlī had great influence on his Indian contemporaries. He specialized in feqh, oṣūl al-feqh, and ḥekma. All his books, mainly commentaries and glosses on texts, are in Arabic and Persian. Most notable is his Fawāteḥ al-raḥamūt, a commentary on Moḥebballāh Behārī’s Mosallam al-ṯobūt. (For a full list of his more important works, see EI 2 I, p. 937.) ʿAbd-al-ʿAlī was also, after the tradition of the Ferangī Maḥal family, a mystic. He was especially renowned for having visions of the Prophet while awake. His father initiated him into the branch of the Qāderī order (selsela) stemming from Shah ʿAbd-al-Razzāq of Bansa. There is, moreover, a secondary line of spiritual succession stemming from ʿAbd-al-ʿAlī himself; it remains influential in Ferangī Maḥal to the present day. Among the classical theoreticians of taṣavvof, ʿAbd-al-ʿAlī was profoundly affected by Ebn al-ʿArabī. He made a lifelong study of his expositions in Foṣūṣ al-ḥekam and Fotūḥāt al-makkīya, and his Persian commentary on Rūmī’s Maṯnavī sought to explain the “secrets” of that text in the light of Ebn al-ʿArabī’s two major works.

ʿAbd-al-ʿAlī’s acquisition of the name Baḥr-al-ʿolūm has been reported variously. Family tradition, which is probably reliable, says he was given the name by Shah ʿAbd-al-ʿAzīz Dehlavī (ʿEnāyatallāh, Taḏkera, p. 141). In south India ʿAbd-al-ʿAlī is remembered as having brought about a great intellectual awakening (Pirzada, Foundations, p. 351). The Ferangī Maḥal family regards him, together with Mollā Neẓām-al-dīn and Mawlānā ʿAbd-al-Ḥayy, as one of its most distinguished ancestors.


Mawlavī ʿEnāyatallāh, Taḏkera-ye ʿolamā-ye Ferangī Maḥal, Lucknow, 1930, pp. 137-42.

Šeblī Noʿmānī, Maqālāt-e Šeblī, Azamgarh, 1955, pp. 116-20.

Raḥmān-ʿAlī, Taḏkera-ye ʿolamā-ye Hend, ed. Moḥammad Ayyūb Qadrī, Karachi, 1961, pp. 304-06.

Brockelmann, GAL S. II, pp. 607, 624-25.

Ahmad, Ind. Arab. Lit., pp. 56, 112, 262, 288-90, 317, 337-38, 364-66.

Valīallāh Ferangī Maḥalī, al-Aḡsān al-arbaʿa, ms. in Nadwat al-ʿolamāʾ, Lucknow, n.d., pp. 50-53.

M. Hidayat Husain, “The Life and Works of Baḥr al-ʿulūm,” JASB N.S. 7, 1911, pp. 693-95.

Mohamamd Shafiʿ, “Bahr al-ʿulum,” EI 2 I, pp. 936-37.

Sharifuddin Pirzada, Foundations of Pakistan: All India Muslim League Documents. 1906-1947 II, Karachi, 1970, p. 351.

Moḥammad Reżā Anṣārī, Bānī dars-e Neẓāmīya, Lucknow, 1973.

(F. Robinson)

Originally Published: December 15, 1982

Last Updated: July 13, 2011

This article is available in print.
Vol. I, Fasc. 1, p. 95

Cite this entry:

F. Robinson, “'Abd-al-'ali bahr-al-'olum,” Encyclopædia Iranica, I/1, p. 95; an updated version is available online at http://www.iranicaonline.org/articles/abd-al-ali-bahr-al-olum (accessed on 12 January 2014).