Shaykh Akram Nadwi, in London on 25 April 2009, delivered a one-day course on the life of Shah Waliullah (1703-1762) and the latter’s Hujjat Allah al-baligha – a book which Shaykh Akram studied during his Masters’ studies at Nadwa al-‘Ulama. Before stimulating one’s intellect with new facts and arguments, the moments with Shaykh Akram are first sought in order to benefit from his noble character and to take the blessing, or baraka, of his company. The combination of his high standing in knowledge, and his magnanimous, warm and friendly manners, are stark reminders of one’s own deficiencies, and to God we seek help. These sessions – may God increase them, and make them a blessing for us in this world and the next – are a powerful encouragement towards both spiritual excellence and profound scholarship. Indeed, these are the very characteristics embodied in the works of the last great leader of the Nadwa movement, Shaykh Abul Hasan Ali Nadwi (may God have mercy upon him). For those blessed with familiarity with the latter, Shaykh Akram’s teachings are a vivid evocation of that grand personality. Certainly those familiar with Abul Hasan’s volume on the Shah in Saviours of the Islamic Spirit would have been well positioned for this course on the Shah – in fact, the whole series of the Saviours is a preparation and guide to one’s entire life, and many of Shaykh Akram’s teachings. Of note is the fact that Shaykh Akram is mentioned by name in Abul Hasan’s volume on the Shah, in the section on the Shah’s writings, as the translator of a treatise by the Shah into Arabic from Persian – a gem that is further illumined by the knowledge that this effort was undertaken by Shaykh Akram whilst he was still a student at Nadwa.
The Shah’s Rank in Scholarship
Shaykh Akram emphasised the greatness of the Shah’s contribution to scholarship, in particular with regards to his Hujjat. The latter work was presented as a uniquely coherent and insightful effort at expounding the wisdom of the Sacred Law and in particular the hadith. It was stated that although, for example, someone like Ibn Hajar was greater than the Shah in the science of hadith, or Ibn Taymiyya was superior in some scholarly disciplines appertaining to the Shah’s focus, no one had systematically set out such theory as the Shah did in the Hujjat. Shibli Nu’mani was quoted as arguing that there was no thinker of Ibn Taymiyya’s calibre until the Shah, and how Shibli considered the Shah to be superior. This is interesting because the Shah was, as highlighted by Abul Hasan Ali Nadwi, a great admirer of Ibn Taymiyya, and defended the latter against his opponents. Abul Hasan wrote that the Shah’s main teacher in Hijaz, Abu Tahir Madani, and the latter’s father, Ibrahim Kaurani, were also defenders of Ibn Taymiyya. This is a serious matter that apparently undermines the notion that only the modern age made Ibn Taymiyya famous after centuries of obscurity, with ‘oil money’ or by the printing press. Indeed, the derogatory thesis is seemingly dealt another discrediting blow when one reads Ibn Hajar’s praise of Ibn Taymiyya as ‘Shaykh al-Islam of his era’, ‘excused for his mistakes’ by having ‘fulfilled the conditions of ijtihad’, his production of Ibn al-Qayyim as a sign of his ‘great position’ and his ‘prominence’ being testified to by his contemporaries – words contained in ar-Radd al-wafir, whose lengthy quote by Abu Rumaysah, in his translation of Ibn Taymiyya entitled The Descisive [sic] Criterion Between the Friends of Allah & The Friends of Shaytan, gives a wholly different picture to the extremely abbreviated version presented by Gibril Haddad in his introduction to his translation of Ibn Jahbal al-Kilabi, entitled The Refutation of Him [Ibn Taymiyya] Who Attributes Direction to Allah.
Furthermore, Shaykh Akram spoke of the Shah’s virtue in relation to Abu Hamid Ghazali. It was stated that the Shah possessed a greater standing in hadith, and how the Hujjat does not contain the number of weak and false hadith as those found in the Ihya. Moreover, Shaykh Akram mentioned that he felt that the Shah refuted the basis of philosophy – similar to Ibn Taymiyya – in a way that Ghazali had not. Nevertheless, Shaykh Akram stated his love and study of the Ihya’, as he has previously spoken in relation to Jalaluddin Rumi’s Mathnawi. This is simply one instance that highlights the famous Nadwa method of profound discernment in scholarship, defined by being aesthetic in a way that is still underpinned with the refinement of respectful disagreement based upon sound impartial principles.
Yet there was the remorseful acknowledgement that the Indians had failed in their duty of propagating the Shah’s masterpiece – a duty upon them due to him being their own son. Moreover, it was argued that the Shah’s legacy has been not comprehensively embodied and taken forward – duly accepted as being possible – in the Muslim world.
In fact, the Shah was presented as having received opposition in his own subcontinent from staunch adherents of rigidly formulated rulings in the Hanafi school, who took exception to the Shah’s path of madhhab openness for the scholars – what Abul Hasan called his ‘endeavour’ to ‘establish a rapport between the hadith and fiqh in order to combine and reconcile the four juristic schools’; and from those Sufic elements unappreciative of the Shah’s attempts at reforming certain Sufic practices that he considered corrupt. Shaykh Akram mentioned how even Shaykh Zahid Kawthari had refrained from too much praise of the Shah and even considered the latter to be confused. Yet Shaykh Akram – after duly praising Kawthari’s scholarly aptitude – proceeded to defend the Shah, and stated that the accusation of confusion would have to return to the accuser, for actually failing to understand the Shah. [For Shaykh Akram, the real reviver of Islamic values in Indian Muslim society would have to be Sayyid Ahmad and Shah Isma’il (a grandson of Waliullah) – see Mohiuddin Ahmad’s Sayyid Ahmad Shahid: His Life and Mission (intro. Abul Hasan Ali Nadwi) for details of Ahmad and Isma’il.]
The Science of Hadith and the Sacred Law
The crucial edifice in the Shah’s foundation for uncovering the wisdom of the Sacred Law is explained by the Shah in the preface to the Hujjat, as read in the class: ‘the main topic in the fields of sciences of certainty (‘ulum yaqiniyya) and the chief element, the basis of the religious disciplines and their foundations, is the discipline of the hadith reports’ (trans. Marcia K. Hermansen, in The Conclusive Argument of God: Shah Wali Allah of Delhi’s Hujjat Allah al-Baligha – used hereafter). For the Shah, the science of hadith has been outlined as having different levels, with the ‘most subtle’ being ‘knowledge of the inner meanings of religion which investigates the wise principles (hikam) behind the rulings, their rationale, and the secrets of the properties and fine points of actions’.
Shaykh Akram stated that the Shah was the first to explicitly affirm the primary type of hadith investigation. Yet the Shah had added that there is a precedent for this understanding in the ‘practice of the Prophet, may the peace and blessings of God be upon him, and the consensus of the generations whose goodness has been attested’, as well as in some of the explanations of the scholars like ‘Al-Ghazzali, al-Khattabi, and Ibn ‘Abd al-Salam and their like’.
Shaykh Akram praised the Shah’s classification of hadith works with a wondrous gesture of admiration. Sadly, he regretted that time constraints did not permit him to go into full detail. Nonetheless, the Shah’s discussion on the complexity of the compilations of Bukhari and Muslim was presented. In the course of this explanation, the Shah asserted how the excellence of these works was also due to them both having thoroughly discussed the status of the hadiths and any hidden mistakes with their teachers; and how later attempts at establishing numerous hadith of a similar rank, such as the Mustadrak of Hakim, come up short of the mark.
Shaykh Akram mentioned how the Qur’an is the direction, and the hadith show the path to the destination; hence the absolute necessity of the hadith for understanding the religion correctly. He also explained that the Shah had a leaning towards the Muwatta’ of Imam Maliki when it came to hadith – while he had a leaning to Imam Shafi’i when it came to establishing legal rulings (fiqh); but, as Abul Hasan Ali Nadwi has highlighted, the Shah had admiration for the immense scholarly rank of all of the Four Imams of the madhahib. Of course, one would be disingenuous to hint that the Shah was opposed to the following of the four schools of law for the non-specialist. Abul Hasan Ali Nadwi has explained how the Shah had a ‘moderate view’ in this regard; for the Shah, the following (taqlid) of the four schools of law was not to be abandoned for the unqualified; but he did not accept scholarly complacency in following such schools, hence he called for scholars to aim towards ijtihad, or independent legal reasoning. I believe that the Shah’s theory in this regard still requires more elaboration before a full appreciation can be attained, but these statements suffice as a summary.
Shaykh Taqi ‘Uthmani, in The Legal Status of Following a Madhab [sic], has provided additional quotations from the Shah’s legal theory on madhahib and taqlid. Of course, despite not being entirely rigid to historical pronouncements of the traditional Hanafi texts, ‘Uthmani can be identified with the more conservatively Hanafi tradition of Deoband. Yet the way of Nadwa – as argued by Abul Hasan Ali Nadwi in Western Civilization, Islam and Muslims, and exemplified by Shaykh Akram in his Madrasah Life: A Student’s Day at Nadwat al-Ulama, al-Fiqh al-Islami: According to the Hanafi Madhhab, Volume 1, and in his teaching of fiqh – is to interpret and implement legal theory in general, and the Shah in particular, in a more expansive manner. For the non-scholar, the choice is for them to decide on which path is more correct. The matter is one that cannot be categorically proven, and recourse to history is not a decisive argument; for the rights and wrongs of the issue relate to something much more open to debate; and only the best of scholars are privy to the argument’s inner realm. On this note, one can observe the level of manners befitting scholars of the noblest disposition in the debate, which are far from the tantrums of the rabble. For example, see the extract of praise by Shaykh ‘Uthmani for another scholar who is far from conservative, Shaykh Yusuf Qaradawi, as published on www.suhaibwebb.com on 22 April 2009; in this, ‘Uthmani noted that differences – as he felt on occasions towards some of Qaradawi’s conclusions – due to ijtihad are ‘natural’, and do not detract from Qaradawi’s outstanding scholarly contribution and excellent character.
The Meaning of Man
Shaykh Akram stressed the orthodox rejection of Aristotelian logic in the realm of metaphysics and epistemology, which tries to define premises and matters that are beyond its realm without the guidance of Divine revelation – as also happens in modern science – and the need of such people to expect God to justify all of His actions; hence the acceptance of such a stanch leads to constant alteration of Scripture and legal prescriptions – as has occurred in Judaism and Christianity. In contrast to this worldview, Shaykh Akram taught how true religion teaches that humans are slaves and that God is the Master. In such a relationship, the slaves obey in total submission, without stipulating conditions on God – na’udhu billah – but at the same time knowing that God is All-Wise, and hence His rulings and actions are wise, even if the wisdom is not obvious to us in every instance. In light of the Shah’s orthodox religious understanding, the most important point that he wants to emphasise is al-‘ubudiyyah, or the state of humans as slaves of God. The purpose of knowing the ‘secrets’ (asrar) of the Sacred Law is to give one further spiritual satisfaction and increase of one’s faith. [Shaykh Akram mentioned that Islamic jurisprudence, or usul al-fiqh, is ‘pure Islamic philosophy’. Moreover, he mentioned how Razi’s famous commentary of the Qur’an accepted an Aristotelian philosophical stance of trying to rationally justify all of God’s actions; however, it was stated that although Razi was skilled in raising numerous doubts concerning such matters, he was nevertheless weak in then subsequently refuting them.]
Thus a human is to truly understand his purpose, and this is aided through identification of one’s major category and minor category, and the characteristics pertinent to each; together with one being required to fulfil the characteristics of its minor category, which marks one’s distinction. In the case of humans, they are to identify their minor category of being human (insan) and their major category of belonging to the animate creation. The true understanding of the characteristics and identification of such matters is the way forward towards felicity (sa’ada), according to Shah Waliullah. This path essentially entails the human being able to submit their animalistic traits to those angelic traits proper to the purpose of their creation. In this process, one is to know that intelligence must be superior to one’s desires, and that one is aided in this battle through the guidance of Divine revelation.
The Shah, being both an orthodox scholar and Sufic Master, emphasised the necessity of spiritual excellence (ihsan). Nevertheless, his vision – as exemplified to its natural conclusion in some of his ancestors – is a practical spirituality; hence one is not surprised that the Arab revivalists, like Shaykhs Qaradawi and Sayyid Sabiq, have propagated the teaching of the Hujjat – see Qaradawi’s words of praise and encouragement to the Hujjat’s study in Approaching the Sunnah: Comprehension & Controversy, and Sabiq bringing out an edition in Arabic (as mentioned by Abul Hasan in Saviours, when he calls Sabiq the ‘well-known scholar’). [Abul Hasan Ali Nadwi also noted that Shaykh ‘Abdal-Fattah Abu Ghuddah produced an edition of a work by the Shah on legal theory.] Thus Shaykh Akram mentioned how some pious Sufis will be led by their abstinence of the world (zuhd) to an isolationism that is focused on spiritual stations and experiences (maqamat). He quoted a Sufi who was amazed that the Prophet (may the peace and blessings of God be upon him) conversed with God Almighty on the night ascension and then returned to engage with the creation, because if he had been blessed so then he would never himself have returned. However, the historical record of many leading Sufis balancing the needs of high spirituality with the Islamic virtue of public service has been well articulated by Abul Hasan Ali Nadwi in Appreciation and Interpretation of Religion in the Modern Age – the latter being a work in disagreement with Shaykh Sayyid Mawdudi on certain matters. [For those who object to the use of ‘Shaykh’ for Mawdudi, and consider him a mere ‘journalist’, they should observe Abul Hasan’s respectful tones towards Mawdudi for his being a ‘Maulana’ and an ‘eminent scholar’.]
Therefore Shaykh Akram wanted to emphasise the Shah’s teachings on the reality of Prophecy, and how the best Messenger is he whose believers become messengers to all human beings. In this conveyance of the message, Shaykh Akram spoke of how this world is for work and action, and the next life is for enjoyment, i.e. be messengers of the Messenger (may the peace and blessings of God be upon him). [Muhasibi has a beautiful quotation from Hasan al-Basri in Risala al-mustarshidin: ‘Allah the exalted did not make any rest for the believer but in Paradise.’] Of course, he stressed that one needs rest for this work – as he himself exemplified in his Madrasah Life, where his student studies were supplemented by occasional wholesome rests consisting largely of poetry recitals, exchange of amusing and enlightening anecdotes, and playing of sports like badminton and hunting. Nonetheless, he added that enjoyment should not become an aim of life in itself. He then gave the example of this latter excess in the form of music and singing, for such entertainments can make people forget religion (as is also, he added, the case with football and cricket). On the issue of playing the duff, a small tambourine, Shaykh Akram said that there are so few narrations of its use, so people shouldn’t exceed the bounds of such pastimes that are supposed to be infrequent. In this respect, Shaykh Akram taught how problems, like ‘backwardness’ and the ways forward, can only be defined by those with a profound understanding of Islam through knowledge of the sciences.
The students were reminded to be ‘humble’ when making pronouncements and when unaware of the wisdom behind the Sacred Law. Shaykh Akram exemplified this when he quoted the Shah’s statement in the preface of the Hujjat when ‘the spirit of the Prophet, may the peace and blessings of God be upon him’, had ‘appeared’ before him one day after the ritual prayer while he was in the state of God’s remembrance. Shaykh Akram said that this is a different field, and therefore it is quoted without explaining what it means. This humility contrasts with a modern habit of rushing into condemnation before fully considering all aspects of a matter – a point that is confirmed by Abu Hamid Ghazali’s words of caution in relation to mystical utterances in his Ninety-Nine Beautiful Names of God.
The course ended with a beautiful exposition of the wisdom of Islamic rulings pertaining to childbirth from the Hujjat. This lovely explanation touched on the importance of being upon the way of the Prophet Ibrahim (upon him be peace), and how the laws remind one of such a blessed affiliation, the preservation and subtle propagation of genealogy through the method of the ‘aqiqah, giving of thanks to God and benefiting the poor through the giving of wealth and food, the ease of the rulings in making payment of the child’s hair in silver (and not gold, which is more expensive), and how the shaving of the baby’s hair relates to being a new born (as in the case of the Hajj).
There has been some propagation of the Shah’s Hujjat in English: Abul Hasan’s analysis in his volume on the life of the Shah; Hermansen’s translation of the first volume of the Hujjat – Shaykh Akram called the first volume ‘theoretical’ and the second volume ‘practical’; and Abul Hasan Ali Nadwi’s Four Pillars of Islam, which he said contained the ‘pith and substance’ of what the Hujjat contained in regards to the ritual prayer, fasting, zakat and Hajj. Nevertheless, now that Shaykh Akram has introduced the work, we should push on with encouraging him and other qualified people to teach more from the second volume – whether in the form of a series of one-day or two-day courses, even if ‘retreats’ – for such efforts so far are only a cup from the sea. This is especially important when one considers the dire need for Muslims – more so for those who cannot access Arabic – to receive profound practical guidance from reliable sources on how to be a Muslim, in both deed and spirit. Such a venture should also include a ‘way of the believers’ series based on two other Arabic classics loved by Shaykh Akram: Dhahabi’s Siyar and Ibn al-Jawzi’s Sayd al-khatir. It is for students around the entire country to reveal their high aspiration (himma), and to beseech, implore, organise and pay for such blessed teaching, by God’s will. The teaching of such classics will, by God’s grace, be a source of great empowerment for Muslims in the West, because it seems that the Muslims of this region are unlikely to learn Arabic as a living language in large numbers – and God knows best, may He forgive me. If such firm roots are not laid down, then how can we expect to flourish in this generation, and for many more to come? May God give us success!