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.”