By Arshad Alam, New Age Islam
13 February 2016
Abul Hasan Ali Nadwi
Abul Hasan Ali Nadwi (1913-1999), the rector of the famous madrasas at Nadwa at Lucknow is considered as one of the most influential Ulema (plural of Alim, scholar) in the Muslim world. His fame and contribution to Islamic knowledge is not just recognised in the Indian subcontinent but also in the larger Arabic world. In India, Nadwi is often portrayed as someone who believed in the efficacy of the secular Indian state as well as being an ambassador of Hindu Muslim unity. It is not surprising therefore that when he was alive, politicians of various hues made a beeline to seek his blessings. The problem however is that even a cursory analysis of his writings reveal a distinct bias in favour of Arabic and Islamic superiority which hardly augurs well for a composite living together between different communities in India, particularly amongst Hindus and Muslims.
It was a result of this fostering of Arabic and Islamic superiority that Nadwi was awarded the King Faisal prize in 1980 by the Saudi crown. It must be mentioned here that the same prize was bestowed upon Maududi and more recently to the televangelist Zakir Naik for their so called contribution to Islamic sciences.
[Abul A’la Maududi, the founder of Jamaat-e-Islami, is considered one of the two founders of modern Islamist terrorism, along with Syed Qutb of Egypt. Zakir Naik is a Saudi-supported Indian Ahl-e-Hadithi preacher, very popular in the Muslim world today.]
A little bit of historical context becomes important to understand how Nadwi became one of the favourite Alim of the Saudi establishment.
Nadwi was the founding secretary of the Muslim World League
founded in 1962 at Mecca by the Saudi state. While the ostensible reason for
the establishment of Muslim World League was to promote inter-religious
dialogue, in reality the League acted as an important arm of the Saudi foreign
ministry with the express intention of promoting Wahhabi thought and practices
within the Muslim World. As a recognition to the contribution of Nadwi in
establishing this platform he was handed over the keys of the two holy mosques
by the Saudi King. Nadwi’s contribution to Islamic sciences and his loyalty to
the Saudi crown therefore went hand in hand.
Nadwi didn’t have to go too far to search for inspiration of
an authentic Arab Islam; he just had to look for it within his family. The best
known member of his family was Syed Ahmad Barelwi who had organized a movement
for puritanical reform within Islam which had distinct similarities with the
Wahhabi movement in Saudi Arabia.
In his autobiography, Karwan e Zindagi, Nadwi notes
that the association with Syed Ahmad Barelvi was a matter of great distinction
for the family. His family saw itself as an inheritor of this reformist and
puritanical movement. Among other things, this meant being antithetical to the
local and popular forms of Islamic beliefs and practices as well as being
anti-Shia, which were particularly strong in the Shia dominated Lucknow where
Nadwi family had come to settle. In fact, Nadwi speaks with some pride that the
neighbourhood where his family resided was popularly known as the Mohalla of
Wahhabis because it was one of the few which was inhabited by people of ‘right
belief’. It is hardly surprising then that the Nadwi’s first major intellectual
undertaking was a biography of Syed Ahmad Barelvi and his so-called reformist
movement. This was a theme to which he would later return frequently in his
The notion of Arabic superiority was embedded within Nadwi’s
writings. Through this latent racism perhaps, Nadwi was also proclaiming the
superiority of his own Arab lineage. The Arabs were considered as a model to be
emulated, far superior to Indian Muslims. Thus right from the very beginning,
students at Nadwa were moulded to become part of this Arabic world, most
importantly through the Arabic language which was considered as the most
authentic language in which Islam could be expressed. The Nadwa always
considered Arabic as the language in which its students were to be socialized.
The idea was that Islam and its ways could only be appreciated through the
language of Arabic thus in a sense jettisoning the lingua franca of North
Indian Muslims which was Urdu.
Students at Nadwa were trained to debate in Arabic with the
idea that they should be able to converse with and impress any Arab. More
interestingly, students of Nadwa were to have an ‘Islamic dress which would be
modelled on the dress of respectable Arabs’. Not only this, students were
supposed to dine in an Arabic manner. What precisely it meant by Islamic dress
and Islamic way of dining was not clear but what became clear through these
prescriptions was that Arabic ways and customs were considered far superior to
the Indian ones.
This negative attitude relating to all things Indian can
only mean that there was no attempt on Nadwi’s part to develop a theology which
was contextually dependent on the Indian situation. The culturally alienating
theology of Nadwa therefore was responsible for much symbolic violence on its
students who were being socialized into an ideology which demeaned their own
Indian roots and civilisational heritage. The implications for pluralism was
ominous and Nadwa duly contributed to it, not just through the writings of
Nadwi but also through what it inculcated amongst its students in the madrasa.
In his book, Muslims in India (1980), Nadwi talks through
the language of power highlighting the exalted status of Muslims vis-à-vis the
nation (read Hindus). In his scheme of things, the coming of Islam and Muslims
marked the beginning of an era of enlightenment, progress and prosperity in
India’s history. He signs off by saying that it would be better if the Hindus
do not forget the ‘gratitude’ that they owe to the Muslims.
Apart from teaching the Hindus the message of universal
brotherhood and equality, Islam also taught the Hindus how to dress up and
converse in a cultured manner. Moreover, it was the Muslims who gave history to
the Hindus as before Muslims what existed in India was a collection of
mythologies and folklores which the Hindus regarded as history. In short,
everything that was good about India today was because of Muslims. Conversely,
everything that was bad among the Muslims was because of Hindu influence!
Thus the Muslims, because of centuries of living among the
Hindus, had adopted customs and practices which were clearly un-Islamic and
which must be repudiated for bringing back the glory of Islam and Muslims. In his other work, The Musalman
(1977), he terms Muslim practices during certain festivals like Muharram
and Urs to be completely un-Islamic which has no sanction anywhere else
in the Muslim world, particularly within the Arabian heartland. This exercise
of measuring religious practices of a community through an Arabian standard
places the majority of the Indian Muslims under the need of express reform. In
fact Nadwi expresses satisfaction when he notes that some of these seemly
un-Islamic customs are being given up due to the increasing influence of
Islamic education. Thus we see that in Nadwi, Islamic superiority is coupled
with the need to curb internal plurality within Muslims.
What an irony then, that even as Nadwi is credited as someone who tried to foster mutual understanding between Hindus and Muslims, in his writings, what is Indian about Muslim culture turns out for the most part not to be “Islamic” at all. Nadwi is at pains to emphasize the loyalty and devotion of India’s Muslims to the nation-state as well as the need for communal harmony between Muslims and Hindus. But this harmony is predicated not on similarities between the two communities, still less on a religious and cultural symbiosis; it is predicated rather on a recognition of their distinct, immutable identities. Such a methodology hardly augurs well for a composite living together of Hindus and Muslims. Rather, in Nadwi, what we get is a distinct politics of anti-pluralism predicated on a disdain for Hindus and an unquestioning superiority in all things Arab and Islamic.
A newageislam.com columnist, Arshad Alam is a New Delhi based writer