Shaykh Abul Hasan Ali Nadwi and His Message for Muslims in the West


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Part I | Part II | Part III | Part IV

Note: Shaykh Abul Hasan Ali Nadawi’s opinions below do not necessary reflect the opinions of the author or SuhaibWebb.com. To view Andrew Booso’s discussion and review of Shaykh Abdul Hasan’s positions, please be sure to visit the 4th part of the series: Part IV

The Nadwi Foundation has recently published the English translation of my dear teacher Shaykh Akram Nadwi’s Arabic biography of his teacher Shaykh Abul Hasan Ali Nadwi (1914-1999) (may the mercy of God be upon him), with complimentary reviews by some leading Western teachers of Islam, such as ustadhs Suhaib Webb, Faraz Rabbani and Muhammad Ibn Adam al-Kawthari (praising the work’s scholarliness and relevance to Muslims in the West.) Shaykh Abul Hasan was one of the most prominent global Islamic scholars of the late-twentieth century, with an esteemed reputation extending from his own Indian subcontinent to Egypt, Syria and Saudi Arabia and then to England (as Shaykh Akram’s book highlights). He had the noble vision to try and positively impact the lives of Muslims in the West, through his frequent visits to the West and the excellent English translations of his own works in the 1970s and 1980s, of which the translations by Asif Kidwai surpassed in quality so much Islamic literature in English at the time and which have also stood the test of time (especially Kidwai’s translation of Abul Hasan entitled Islam and the World.)

Regarding the new translation by the Nadwi Foundation, I was blessed to see an early draft edited by Jamil Qureshi (formerly a chief editor, most prominently, at the Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies), which showed signs of Qureshi’s usual editorial prowess, masha Allah, although I understand that the work has since received further editing by people other than Qureshi (work which I have not seen and people whom I do not know). Being the translation of an Arabic work intended, naturally, for an Arab audience, the version of the translation that I saw didn’t focus extensively on Abul Hasan’s attitude to the West and the challenges of being Muslim in the West. Therefore I decided to put together some of the Shaykh’s thoughts on these matters, as gleamed from his numerous works, and present them here. Nevertheless, the current English translation remains highly relevant for English-speaking Muslims, and Shaykh Akram explains such relevance in the preface to the printed edition:

“It is my hope that readers will get a clear sense, from this account of Shaykh ʾAbū al-Ḥasan’s own life and work, of the wealth of resources that Muslims can draw on, how much they love their religion, the range of virtues they seek to nurture and produce in themselves and in others, the diverse ways they try to help and support one another, and their efforts to worship dutifully and speak truthfully, obey the law, be moderate and balanced in their tastes and expenditures, and be mild, kindly, courteous and respectful to others, without the least sacrifice of ardour on behalf of ʾIslām.”

On a passing personal note, Shaykh Abul Hasan has perhaps had the most profound impact on my own outlook on pre-modern Islamic intellectual history, and I’ve then been blessed to explore that vision with people like Shaykh Akram. Therefore it is hoped that this book will be a door for many to benefit from Shaykh Abul Hasan; and my review of his thoughts here will perhaps highlight why a Nadwi project for the West – if one can even coherently conceive of such a thing, given the diversity of approach within the Nadwah madrasah in India – is definitely a work in progress, but certainly one that is worth critically engaging with (and, by no means, slavishly imitating and accepting, as, indeed, one should approach Abul Hasan’s theories on Islamic intellectual history). In fact, the ability to tolerate people’s differences with one’s thought is what characterised Abul Hasan’s own way, as explained by Shaykh Akram in the YouTube clip produced to publicise the English translation of the biography; and Shaykh Akram himself has always told his students and audiences that they are free to differ with him on any given matter. The introduction of a learned and free discourse, as exemplified in the Nadwi way of broad tolerance and brotherly love, holds much potential benefit for the Muslims in the West, especially as much of our discourse is shallow and blindly sectarian.

Speaking to the West

Shaykh Abul Hasan’s experience of the West was initially shaped by his being brought up in India under British colonial rule, and then living through the Indian independence movement (with the British leaving India in 1948). In talking of the West and the Muslim world he was wont to speak in terms of dominant features, as he saw them. Therefore the West for him was represented as essentially “materialistic,” and opposed to the religious method of the Prophets of God (may peace be upon them all). In contrast, the Shaykh constantly reminded the Muslims of their being the sole upholders of the Prophetic path, and warned them against compromising that divine message (of which he understood they were acutely close to compromising). The Shaykh’s focus upon such generalities is to be seen within the context of his revivalist message of guiding and reminding people, both Muslim and non-Muslim, of the divine message.

What is highly indicative of the Shaykh’s and the Nadwah’s seriousness in wanting to engage and instruct an English-speaking audience is the publication of Western Civilization, Islam and Muslims. This latter work began life as an Arabic volume published in 1963 and was then rendered into Urdu. After visiting Europe, and benefiting from the British Museum in London and other reputable libraries in Europe, Shaykh Abul Hasan expanded the material into an enlarged Urdu edition that was almost double the size of the Arabic original. From this expanded Urdu edition was made the first English translation in 1969. This work sets out the Shaykh’s views on the purpose and current condition of the Muslim world, his reflections on the meaning of “Western Civilization,” and the history and possible future between the West and the Muslim world.

A more direct, less academic and more grassroots message to Muslims living in the West can be taken from the 1977 lecture tour of North America by the Shaykh, which eventually found itself compiled, translated and published under the title From the Depth of the Heart in America. Here, many of the themes of his Western Civilization are repeated, but there is a more concentrated effort to deal with the actual practicalities of living as a Muslim minority in the West, whilst being less academic and comprehensive than Western Civilization.

The Meaning of Western Civilization

In no way did the Shaykh see only evil or bad in “Western Civilization.” He understood the complexity of the phenomenon and its mixed qualities: the “good as well as bad, true as well as false, and beneficial as well as harmful”, which “included solid facts of knowledge and self-evident truths as well as hypothetical surmises and groundless presumptions.” Consequently, he criticised Muslim responses that were “negative”, i.e. “reject Western Civilization in toto and refuse to have anything to do with it, without caring to enquire what is good in it and what is bad”. He saw that such a “negative” response “can result only in the further backwardness of the Muslim world and its total isolation from the main current of time”, and as such “the posture of negation or rejection will…be patently foolish and short-sighted…It runs contrary to the spirit of Islam. Being a ‘natural’ religion, Islam lays a great stress on the pursuit of knowledge and urges mankind to take the fullest advantage of all the useful branches of learning.”

In essence, the Shaykh saw “the West” as opposed to the Muslim world, but he also saw that it had many virtues that could be adopted by the Muslims. He lamented that:

“Western Civilization started coming into its own at a time when the European people had been compelled by self-seeking ecclesiastics, who had made religion an instrument of tyranny and self-aggrandisement, to raise the banner of revolt against the basic transcendental truths. The Christian Church had degenerated into a most powerful force of obduracy and reaction. Its guardians, by their ignorance, hideous sensuality and corruption, were proving to be the greatest stumbling block in the path of knowledge and progress. As a natural consequence of it all, a strong feeling of revulsion and disgust had developed throughout the Continent against the Church and its representatives. Religion had come to be looked down upon as a corrupting, degrading and retrogressive institution. Spiritual values had fallen into disrepute. From then on, civilization, industrialization and rank materialism began to march ahead in the West in close unison. It was resolved that life should be organised exclusively on materialistic lines without giving a thought to the spiritual personality of man or to the bond that existed between him and his Maker…Once Western Civilization had set out on its course it never looked back.”

He felt that the “wealth” represented in the qualities of “genuine fear of God and love for humanity” which are only inculcated in man “through the teachings of the holy Prophets…was, sadly, lost by the West centuries ago.” In his Islam and the World, he elaborated at length on the Greco-Roman nature of Western Civilization, and how such roots explained the prominence of materialism, agnosticism, paganism, superstition, religion as a mere “social tradition and a utilitarian formula” (i.e. little concerned with truth and logic), and the desire for “imperialism and exploitation of the weaker nations.” Furthermore, he commented on the “amalgamation of Paganism with Christianity” from the time that the Roman Empire supposedly embraced Christianity; and, thus, the latter lost “its soul and beauty” and “could not bring amelioration of the moral conditions of the Romans.” After the passing through of the Renaissance, the thorough separation of Church and state, and the ascendency of materialist philosophies opposed to religion (such as Marxism, Darwinism and those opposed to traditional Christianity, such as the alleged triumph of science over religion), he saw the true religion of the West to now be “materialism” and not Christianity, and: “All the endeavours in the West, thus, are guided solely by considerations of power, pride and glory. The idea of Divine Approbation has no place in their calculations, while it is the very basis of a Muslim’s thought and action.”

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3 Comments

  1. azam n says:

    I think one of the problems with Shaykh Nadwi along with other Muslim scholars overseas is that they do not really understand the complexity and diversity of they call “The West.” Yes it is true that Europe and North America developed a level of education, culture, based on modern secular identity along with an economic revolution rooted in corporate profits. However, there always remained an undercurrent of opposition from the Christian community, particularly the clergy against the excesses of moral degradation, assumptions of political power, lack of concern for the poor, and the loss of religion in the public square. The mainline protestant churches are just as outraged by immoral popular culture and the excesses of Wall Street is outside observers such as Shaykh Nadwi. Indeed, religion in America has made a come back in the form of the Evangelical movement at the turn of the 20th century, along with the rise of other movements such as the Church of the Latter Day Saints, along with Conservative Judaism. So, I do not share his conclusion that “Western civilization” never looked back from its hedonistic, modern, and secular worldview.

  2. anthony says:

    Adherents to Shaykh Abul Hasan Ali Nadawi would sense the wind brushing against the sails of human thought receiving
    the thrust that natural wind would ever desire to move the intellect forward as natural as Islam being “natural”
    My sails are open. How else can we receive the winds of change that move bow to stern and yet still rely on the keel,the timber of longitude,to help us humans with a little latitude.

  3. Azhar says:

    A very heavy judgement passed by Sheikh. No doubt, Islam is the answer for many of social issues. It is not easy to understand the west unless you live in it. There are forces of good and bad regardless of space and time. East has the similar problem as the West. What boils down to what aspect of good or bad is project whether it is East or West.
    Currently, West (at least USA) gives the Freedom of religion and gathering that is the main asset of the WEST.

    Compare to the core Islamic country Saudi Arabia, USA is much flexible on giving such freedom and honoring its people who contribute to the society regardlress of their relegion or ethnicity. Wherease muslim counteris have not adopted the very message of Islam that abolishes tribal or ethnic preferences.

    Yes,west has greed of materialism but physical (economical) aspect of life has been elevated but at the price of moral and family values which the Church is struggling to bring it back. With the growth of muslim community this is happening right now.

    The East has focused on the unit of society that is family and it still is intact, but Moral values are at decline due to economical conditions. I remember the 80′s when I left Pakistan for USA. In a Pakistani neighborhood, if a person used to take bribe everyone in the neighborhood would know look down upon. Today after 25 Years, bribe is so common that the one who does not take bribe stands out.

    My point here is that do we have time to study the West?
    We have so much opportunity to fix ourselves in the light of Quran and Sunnah. This is the need of today and should be the focus and priority of our Ulema.

    – Azhar (Dallas)

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