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Shah Waliullah’s Islamic Reformation in 18th Century India: Sufi or Wahhabi?



By Ghulam Rasool Dehlvi, New Age Islam

24 April 2015

Islam was facing baffling internal problems in 18th century India. Corrupt understanding of the Qur’an and Hadith, complete oblivion to the egalitarian values of Islam, sectarian conflict, moral depravity, caste-based prejudices and many more social vices were creeping into the Muslim society. Besides, there was gradual political decline and collapse in India’s Muslim sultanate. Muslim rulers, jurists and the clergy had also fallen in the pit of the moral and ethical decay. They became completely oblivious to the Qur’anic moral trajectories and Prophetic traditions. Muslim scholars and Ulema had literally done the “closing of the gate of Ijtihad” or independent reasoning. Muslim emirs and elites were busy with the enjoyment of their luxurious life. The situation of common Muslim youths was worse. They had set all value upon fulfilling their selfish whims and desires. In this situation, Shah Waliullah launched a project of Islamic reformation in India and concentrated his efforts on the moral, religious and ethical revival of Indian Muslim society and polity. Therefore, Islamic reformation in India in the eighteenth century is mainly attributed to Shah Waliullah Dehlvi.

Notable Reformation Works of Shah Waliullah

Shah Waliullah’s work can be divided into three major categories: (1) intellectual (2) ideological reformation and (3) political. Although Shah Waliullah concerned himself with politics of his era and had a vision to see a strong Muslim government, he is remembered primarily for his contribution to the religious reformation of Indian Muslims. Among notable reformation work of Shah Waliullah was his translation of the holy Qur’an into Persian. He was the first Indian scholar who translated the Quran into the literary language of the subcontinent of his time. He believed that the purpose of reading the Qur’an is to reform human nature and correct erroneous beliefs and practices. For his rendering the Qur’anic texts into Persian, he was severely criticised by the orthodox and ultra-conservative Muslim clergy of his time.

Being an outstanding Muhaddith (Traditionalist), he also left behind several seminal works on Hadith sciences, particularly his commentaries on "Mu'atta", a collection of the Prophetic traditions compiled by Imam Malik, in both Arabic and Persian. Most notably, Shah Waliullah owns the credit of being the first Islamic scholar in India who stressed the need for Ijtihad (rethinking) to find ways to solve the most intricate problems of his time from a theological perspective.

It was due to Shah Waliullah’s emphasis on Ittehad and independent reasoning that eminent Ulema and theologians of almost all Indian Muslim sects claimed to be his intellectual heirs and true followers. Each of them quoted him, rightly or wrongly, to substantiate their own theological stands. Surprisingly enough, from the orthodox Ulema of the Deoband and the Ahle Hadis to the Muslim modernists such as Sir Syed Ahmad Khan (1817-98), Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, and Sir Muhammad Iqbal (1876-1938), nearly all Ulema and Muslim intellectuals laid a strong claim on him. However, their approaches to link with him were diametrically different. While Muslim modernists such as Sir Sayyid and Maulana Azad focused on his originality of thought, rejection of blind faith and endorsement of Ijtihad (individual reasoning), the Deobandi-Salafi Ulema stressed Shah Waliullah’s emphasis on Hadith scholarship, stricter adherence to the Shari’ah and Islamic jurisprudence (Fiqh). It is interesting to glance through the views of many modernist Muslim scholars in India, like Sir Sayyid Ahmad Khan, who held rationalist and reformist ideas, and yet followed the tradition of Shah Waliullah.

As for the Sunni-Sufi Ulema, they were more inspired by Shah Waliullah’s spiritual inclinations and particularly his affiliation to the Naqshbandi Sufi order. Therefore, they continue to look up to him as a source of spiritual inspiration. Not to speak of Sunnis, even many Shias appreciate his work of reformation. His efforts at bridge-building and reducing the sectarian tensions between the Shias and Sunnis is considered a form of Islamic reformation in India. At a time when Shia-Sunni rift was acute, his writings on the subject, particularly “Izalatul Khifa” (removal of darkness) were a great help in reducing the Shia-Sunni tensions in his time. Moreover, he tried to reconcile the most ravaging sectarian tensions amongst different groups of the Muslims and considered the government as an essential agency for regeneration of the community.

In the jurisprudential issues (Fiqhi Masai’l), Shah Waliullah advocated the path of moderation. He gave preference to the Qur’anic verses rather than the Hadith reports in the contentious jurisprudential matters. His approach to interpret the Qur’an and Sunnah was balanced and opposed to the blind imitation (Taqlid-e-Jamid) of the medieval imams as well as the blind faith in Hadith reporters. However, while Shah Waliullah ostensibly criticised blind imitation in faith and Fiqh and objected on “the closing of the door of Ijtihad”, he maintained that the door of Ijtihad was not open to all and sundry. Rather, he opined that only those well-versed in the Islamic sciences with the required abilities can engage in Ijtihad. Shah Waliullah’s emphasis on Ijtihad was also demonstrated in his efforts of renewal of the Shariah or Islamic law in tune with the modern times.

Shah Waliullah is also known as a social reformer in the Muslim community. Some of his writings are aimed at reorienting the Muslim society with the concepts of basic social justice, removing social inequality and balancing the distribution of wealth. In his book, Hujjat-ullahil Balighah, he mentioned the causes and remedies for degeneration and disintegration of Muslim society.

Pointing out to Shahi Waliullah’s social and political reform works, S. M. Ikram Chaghatai writes: “there were valid reasons for fearing that political disintegration would be accompanied by religious collapse. But that did not happen, due to more than anything else but the services of one man.”  (Shah Waliullah: His Religious and Political Thought by M. Ikram Chaghatai)

Was Shah Waliullah Sufi or Wahhabi?

There is much hype over the theological orientation of Shah Waliullah. From most of his thoughts, it appears that he was imbued with the teachings of Sufism as he belonged to a Sufi family. But some of his writings, as produced and criticised in modern researches, underpin that he was influenced by Wahhabism..... This is perhaps why his thoughts and writings are considered as precursors for radicalism in the Indian subcontinent.  For instance, Dr Farhan Zahid, wrote in his PhD thesis titled “Roots of Radical Islamist Ideologies in South Asia: “Shah Waliullah was inspired from Wahhabi Movement of Arabia. In fact he was a contemporary of Ibn-al-Wahhab, the leader of 18th century radical Arabian Islamist movement. Waliullah had personally come across Wahhab while on pilgrimage to Arabia. Wahhab's writings and thoughts greatly inspired him. " He further writes that “Waliullah's writings are precursors for providing sources for radicalism. He gave a distinct political thought previously absent in Muslim political thought prevailing during the times of semi-secular Mughal dominated India.”

Jamil Ahmad writes in his book titled “Hundred Great Muslims" under the subtitle “Shah Waliullah”: “in his early age, Shah Saheb came under the influence of Ibn-e-Taimiya, a great religious reformer. During his stay in Hejaz, he came into contact with scholars who were influenced by Wahhabism. This provided a check to his blind following of Sufism. But like Wahhabis, he did not totally discard Sufism. He was aware of the services rendered by Sufis in popularising Islam in the subcontinent and the spiritual self developed by the truly Islamic form of Sufism. But he was highly critical of the decadent and traditional form of Sufism which borders on the verge of asceticism and is, therefore, averse to true Islam. In his Wasiyat Nama (Will) he observes: “And the next advice (Wasiyat) is that one should not entrust one's affairs to and become a disciple of the saints of this period who are given to a number of irregularities”.

 Dr Farhan Zahid wrote in his PhD thesis titled “Roots of Radical Islamist Ideologies in South Asia: “Waliullah's writings are precursors for providing sources for radicalism. He gave a distinct political thought previously absent in Muslim political thought prevailing during the times of semi-secular Mughal dominated India.”

According to Ayesha Jalal, “hailed as being at once a Muslim modernist and the architect of Sunni orthodoxy, Shah Waliullah left an intellectual legacy that casts a long shadow over all subsequent explications of jihad in theory and attempts to translate it into practice”. (Partisans of Allah: Jihad in South Asia", Sang-e-Meel Publications, Lahore, pages 15-16)

R. Upadhyay writes in his book "Shah Wali Ullah's Political Thought: Still a Major Obstacle against Modernization of Indian Muslims" (South Asia Analysis Group, Paper no. 629) that "On principle Waliullah had no difference with his contemporary Islamic thinker Abd-al-Wahhab (1703-1787) of Saudi Arabia, who had also launched an Islamic revivalist movement. Wahhab, who is regarded as one of the most radical Islamists had a wide range of followers in India”.

However, Shah Waliullah is known as a Sufi scholar among many Muslim circles of the Indian subcontinent. Most of the Sunni Sufi Muslims of India (also known as Ahl-e-Sunnat wa Jam’at) believe that Shah Waliullah was a reformist Sufi. They appreciate his contributions to major issues in Sufism, for instance, the theory of the unity of being (Wahdat al-Wujud) versus the unity of witness (Wahdat Al-Shuhud). The fact is that Shah Waliullah tried to strike a balance between the orthodoxy in Islam introduced by Ibn Taimiya and the Islamic heterodoxy championed by Sufis. He believed that Islam had two vital aspects. Its exoteric side was concerned with the protection of the public good but its esoteric aspect involved the purification of the heart through virtuous deeds.

Ghulam Rasool Dehlvi is a classical Islamic scholar. He has graduated from a leading Islamic seminary of India, Jamia Amjadia Rizvia (Mau, U.P.), acquired Diploma in Qur'anic Arabic from Al-Jamiat ul Islamia, Faizabad, U.P., and Certificate in Uloom ul Hadith from Al-Azhar Institute of Islamic Studies, Badaun, U.P. He has also graduated in Arabic (Hons) and is pursuing his M. A. in Comparative Religion from Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi.