The Intellectual and Social Contribution of Shâh Waliullâh Dehlawî

Shah Waliullah Dehlawi

 

Introduction

The following essay will assess the intellectual and social contribution of Shâh Waliullâh Dehlawî. The assessment will be made in the following manner. Firstly, there will be a brief biography of Shâh Waliullâh. Secondly, the socio-political context of his time will be described. Thirdly, there will be mention of his contributions against that context. Lastly, the essay will be summarised in a brief conclusion.

 

Brief Biography

Shâh Waliullâh’s lineal ascendants were from amongst the Muslim elite of Delhi. They were acknowledged for both their academic pursuits and spiritual knowledge. Producing numerous eminent scholars, saints, court officials, judges and military commanders. Shâh  Waliullâh’s  lineage is traced from the second caliph of Islam, Ŭmar ibn al-Khattâb. (Ghazi 2002)

 
Shâh Waliullâh Dehlawî was born on 2nd Shawwal 1114AH / 1703CE.  Shâh Waliullâh relates visions seen by his parents before he was even born, in his biography of his father, Bawâriq al-Wilâyah. His father, Abdur-Rahîm, coupled with the visions, noticed astonishing signs in him and hence particularly focused on his son’s education. Shâh Waliullâh was enrolled to maktab at the tender age of four. It was at this time that he surprisingly memorised the whole Qur’ân, which took him a short span of three years. Thereafter, he studied the Persian language, which took him a year to master. At the time Persian was the cultural and educational language and also the language of administration in India. In the subsequent two years his focus was on Arabic language and Arabic grammar. Shâh Waliullâh officially graduated at the age of fourteen from Madrasah Rahîmiyyah, which was founded by his father. After being given the Dastâr-i-Fazîlat (Turban of Honour) he was granted permission to teach. (Ghazi 2002)

 

Shâh Waliullâh himself states that his academic accomplishments were due to his father’s exceptional upbringing and diligent care. Shâh Waliullâh’s spiritual training was commenced by his father. His father became his formal spiritual leader when he was fifteen years of age through expressing formal allegiance in the spiritual Naqshbandī school of thought. Subsequently after graduating from Madrasah Rahîmiyyah, Shâh Waliullâh occupied himself for three consecutive years in specialised and focused study of Islamic knowledge along with revision of other things he read. This was to gain a detailed understanding and insight. (Bakhsh 1955:412,413,484)

 

Shâh Waliullâh’s father passed away in 1718 BC and he was approaching his sixteenth birthday. He succeeded his father in becoming principle of Madrasah Rahîmiyyah and further to this gained fame as one of the best teachers of Islamic sciences. He limited himself to academic pursuits along with responding to religious questions. He would spend the majority of his time in reading and study and some time in meditation. He was known to have an astonishing memory. It has been recorded that he spent approximately twelve years reading, writing, and teaching. He was of the opinion that perfection has to be attained in the science of Hadîth, in order to fully understand the Islamic sciences. This is when he considered it imminent to travel to Arabia so that he could gain perfection in the science of Hadîth. Shâh Waliullâh was very fortunate that Ĥijâz at the time was filled with prominent scholars and proficient Sufis. Shâh Waliullâh was well trained by his father to respect others views by reducing disagreements and reconcile between contradicting views. Shâh  Waliullâh had various mentors and teachers in Arabia who not only helped him become a well-rounded individual but made a tremendous impact on his thinking. This in turn helped his intellectual, social, and political concepts to become a well-defined ideology. (Ghazi 2002)

 

Shâh Waliullâh remained in Arabia for approximately a year and a half, returning to Delhi on Friday 14th Rajab 1145 AH / January 1733BC. (Waliullâh 1897: 406)

 

Upon his return from Ĥijâz, Shâh Waliullâh carried on teaching and writing for thirty years. Until in 1762BC this great luminary of his time left this world leaving the Muslims of South Asia with a strong foundation in religious, social, philosophical and political thought. (Ghazi 2002)

 

Socio-political context of his time

Prior to Shâh Waliullâh, at the commencement of the 18th century the Islamic, intellectual, political and economic state of the Mughal Empire started declining. “Islam was faced with such dreadful threats to its survival that Muslims in other parts of the world realistically feared that the political decay of the Mughals would result in a complete disintegration of the people’s faith”.(Jameelah 2000: 155)

 

After Aurangzeb passed away there were major problems and conflicts between his sons in who will succeed him. To such an extent that the Mughal emperors had become like puppets in the hands of the influential upper class .There were deadly rivalries between two groups that formed in consequence, namely; Turanis and Iranis. The central government was greatly destabilized by their constant plotting. The rise of the Marathas was another major issue. The Marathas were known to be a nation of bandits and robbers, deficient in morals, who caused a lot of devastation. They were successful in making the Mughal Empire weak. Shortly after the death of Aurangzeb in 1707 Sikh massacres became well-known. The constant plundering and looting carried out by the Sikhs had a huge impact on the trade and wealth of Punjab. Furthermore, a strong ethnic group famously known as the Jats, who lived approximately a hundred and forty miles southwest of Delhi, were well known for their marauding and looting just like the Marathas. In early 1720s they would attack and terrify nearby localities. (Ghazi 2002: 51,52,57,58,59)

 

In short, the decline of the Mughals started after Aurangzeb passed away in 1707. He left the Mughal Empire facing four great problems which contributed in the decline of the Mughal Empire. Firstly, his direct heir was very old (sixty-five). Secondly, the Sikhs were campaigning in Punjab. Thirdly, the Marathas and the Jats were going from strength to strength in northern India and in the Deccan. Finally, the court itself was separated into two groups: the Turanis from Central Asia and the Iranis. (Ghazi 2002:51)

 
Coupled with the above mentioned detail, there was also the likeliness of the true pristine practices of Islam being destroyed. This was largely down to the lack of dissemination of true Islamic knowledge all over the country. Muslims all over the world feared the collapse of Islamic faith. In such dark and difficult times for Muslims, a guide was needed, who could guide the masses. This eventually emerged in the form of Shâh Waliullâh. As outlined above, the decline of the Mughals was due to many causative factors. Shâh Waliullâh’s view was that this was due to lack of strong belief and division amongst Muslims. Hence, Shâh  Waliullâh endeavoured to reconcile between the various schools of Islamic law. Shâh  Waliullâh attempted to encourage the Muslims to return to their faith and fully commit themselves to Islam by living life according to the Islamic principles.

 

Shâh Waliullâh was not head of a political party or part of the government, hence it was out of his reach and responsibility to form huge armies or initiate any kind of military action against those that were threating the Muslims. However, he remarkably devoted approximately thirty years of his precious life to comprehensively writing on almost all facets of the religion providing an exhaustive Islamic intellectual response, tackling the challenges and complex issues of the time. He did this by writing over forty books, addressing a wide range of issues such as social, political, cultural and religious. Shâh Waliullâh anticipated balancing all the diverse aspects of Islamic thought so that a united world view could be created. He was a firm proponent of speaking the truth notwithstanding of who may be offended, speaking out against the unjust rulers of his time. He gave all he could in challenging the issues faced by Muslims regardless of any wrongdoer acting as a hindrance. (Ahsraf 1967:183)

 

His contributions

Shâh Waliullâh is well known for his immense contributions towards the development of Islamic thought. He made vast intellectual contributions according to the needs of his time. He penned down issues on numerous topics; such as Qur’ân, Hadîth, Islamic jurisprudence, social morality, mysticism, philosophy, theology, history, and political thought. His works continue to inspire and benefit many people, even today.

 

Translation of Qur’ân into the Persian language: Disputes were rife regarding differences on the minute details of interpretation of the Qur’ân. This would cause disunity amongst the Muslims and divert the attention of the Muslims away from the fundamentals of Islam. The Persian language was the literary language of the time; hence Shâh Waliullâh translated the Qur’ân in to the Persian language so that the Qur’ân may be understandable for the masses. Shâh Waliullâh also emphasized on the fundamentals of Islam. By translating the Qur’ân into Persian, he once again introduced the people to the main sources of Islamic law.

 

Arabic and Persian commentary on Mu’attâ of Imâm Malik: Shâh Waliullâh actually established a school for study of Prophetic narrations in which he left behind numerous works including an Arabic and Persian commentary on Mu’attâ, the well-known collection of the  traditions by Imâm Malik, even greater than those of Bukhârī and Muslim.

 

Al insâf fī bayâni Asbâb al Ikhtilâf (The balance in explaining the reasons of differences): Shâh Waliullâh wrote this book in Arabic. He wrote it to create a balance between the four schools of thought; Ĥanafī, Shâfī, Mâlikī and Ĥanbalī. A concise, remarkable and explanatory book, clarifying the history of Islamic jurisprudence.

 

ïqd al-Jīd fī Bayân al-Aĥkâm al-Ijtihâd wa-t-Taqlīd (The necklace in explanation of the rulings of Ijtihâd and following): This is a piece written by Shâh Waliullâh in Arabic. He reintroduced Ijtihâd at a time when it had been famously established among orthodox circles that after the codification of Islamic law by the four jurists, the doors of Ijtihâd were closed for ever. Shâh Waliullâh did not agree with this principle and adopted Ijtihâd. However, he wrote this treatise addressing this issue with regards to its boundaries etc.

 

Ĥujjat Allâh al-Bâlighah (The conclusive argument from God): This is Shâh Waliullâh’s masterpiece written in Arabic. This masterpiece deals with aspects of Islam that are common among all Muslim countries. In this book, he has presented Islamic teachings in light of scientific objectivity. In short it could be rounded off as explaining the wisdom behind Islamic teachings.

 

Izâlat-ul Khafâ än Khilâfat al-Khulafä (Ending the mystery about the caliphate of the caliphs): This is a book written in Persian by Shâh Waliullâh on the principles and history of Islamic Caliphate. In his time, the Muslims were disintegrated and had been divided into two groups; Turani and Irani. This was affecting the innocent people. In light of this, Shâh  Waliullâh was of the opinion that unhealthy conditions which had impacted  Muslims in their beliefs, thoughts, practices, etc., was because of two things; one,  the transfer of political authority from the caliphs to absolute monarchs, and two the irrational following of Islam in the absence of Ijtihâd. It was in such perilous circumstances Shâh Waliullâh tried his utmost to diffuse differences based on religious convictions and he wrote Izâlat-ul Khafâ än Khilâfat al-Khulafä to create an understanding between Shî’ä and Sunnis.

 

With regards to Shâh Waliullâh’s greatest work, there has been varied opinions, with some people claiming his master piece Ĥujjat Allâh al-Bâlighah to be his greatest work and others claiming his commentary on the Mu’attâ of Imâm Malik to be his greatest work. It can be said that Shâh Waliullâh’s translation of the Qur’ân in to the Persian language is arguably his greatest work and contribution. This is because at the time Persian was the cultural, educational and administrative language in India.

 

Furthermore, there was an absence of such translation of the Qur’ân. Due to such absence, the masses remained in ignorance about the main primary source of Islam, i.e. the Qur’ân. Hence, Shâh Waliullâh fulfilled such a dire need by writing an easy to read translation of the Qur’ân and that too in the language of the people.

 

Conclusion

It is clear from aforementioned detail that Shâh Waliullâh was an exceptional individual who has without doubt made one of the greatest social and intellectual contributions to the development of thought in Southeast Asia. His successors are truly indebted to him for the work and legacy he has left.

 

Shâh Waliullâh, without doubt struggled for the improvement of the Muslims, frequently advising the Muslims to return to the pristine teachings of the core texts, i.e. the Qur’ân and the Sunnah. He urged the Muslims to refrain from false practices, urged them to unite and not divide on insignificant differences. Shâh Waliullâh left a lasting legacy behind and indeed is and always will be a source of inspiration for generations to come. His contributions and renaissance of the Muslims positively impacted those in his time continues to do so.

 

It will be no overstatement to say that Shâh Waliullâh’s reformist ideas profoundly impacted those of his time to such an extent that the annals of history of Southeast Asia cannot be discussed without referring to his influence. Even the various schools of thought and reformist movements of our time; especially those linked to the Indo-Pak subcontinent  revere him and have pride in boasting their origins back to his teachings and claim his intellectual and spiritual influence.

 

Article by: Mufti Sufyan Ibn Yakub

 

Bibliography

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Islamic supplementary school

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