||From Qasim to Qasim:A Brief Survey of Islamic Orthodoxy in the Indian Subcontinent|
Brief Survey of Islamic Orthodoxy in the Indian Subcontinent from the Warrior
Muhammad ibn Qasim to the Philosopher-Theologian Muhammad Qasim Nanotwi
Ali Altaf Mian
civilization, encompassing many sub-civilizations, is suffused in the Indian
Subcontinent. Many of the world’s famous religions flourish in this part of the
is home to Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, and Sikhism, and became a receptive host
for the Abrahamic religions as well. The apostlehood of the Prophet Muhammad and
the revelation of the Qur’an were, notes Stanley Wolpert, “destined to divert
fundamentally the course of Indian history.”
Expeditions aimed at India
were deliberated, and to some extent carried out, without ever materializing,
during the reign of the second Caliph of Islam, Umar ibn al-Khattab.
report that the first Arab attack was on the coastal regions near present-day
Mumbai around the year 636.
In 660, when Ali ibn Abi Talib was the Caliph, there was another attempt to
and again in 664, Muawiya, the first Umayyad ruler,
sent Abdullah ibn Sawad with a “more organized expedition” that was “repulsed by
In 711, Muhammad ibn Qasim led the first successful expedition towards
responding to the “piratic plundering of a richly laden Arab ship as it passed
the mouth of the Indus.”
conquest resulted in the incorporation of Sind
into the Umayyad Empire and marked the beginning of Islam’s strong foothold in
the Indian Subcontinent. It was not until the invasions from Transoxiana in the
tenth century, however, that Islam would spread throughout
Mahmud Ghaznawi to Akbar
Abbasid caliphs, who had replaced the Umayyads and had shifted the Muslim
Baghdad, had begun enlisting
large numbers of central Asians into their army. One of them was Alptigin, “who
seized the Afghan fortress of Ghazni in 962,” thereby becoming the founder of
the first Turkish Islamic kingdom.
His grandson, Mahmud (971-1030), led many attacks on the Northwestern part of
finally incorporating a large portion of
North India into
the Muslim World. For the next century and a half, the Ghaznavids ruled parts of
They were sacked when “Sultan Muhammad of Ghur and his slave lieutenant Qutb-ud-din
Aybak led their first raid into India
in 1175, destroying the Ghaznavid garrison at
in 1179, capturing
in 1186 and
Qutb al-Din Aybak became the ruler of this kingdom in 1206, and the founding of
his “‘Slave’ (Mamluk)
dynasty transformed North India
into Dar-ul-Islam (“Land
from Dar-ul-Harb (“Land
For about the next 300 years, the Delhi Sultanate (1193-1556), encompassing
“five successive Turko-Afghan dynasties,” were to rule most of North India.
The brief historical sketch above paints only the political side of the story,
the more important part of this fascinating page of history entails the
spiritual aspects, which were more efficacious in Islamicizing India. The
comprehensive approach to studying Islam in India
includes the political side of history as well as the spiritual side of culture.
Annemarie Schimmel is thus quite accurate in the following excerpt:
The history of Indian Islam is, however, not only a history of political facts,
of conquests and wars, of expansion and breakdown, but is a spiritual history as
well. It is the history of the century-long conflict between the Islamic concept
of tauhid, strict
monotheism, and Hinduism in its different manifestations which constituted, in
the eyes of the pious Muslims, the very essence of idolatry and polytheism which
had been condemned by the Quran.
was thus Divine decree to open new fields for, in the language of Shah Wali
Allah, Qur’anic polemics (Ilm
al-mukhasima) to address its convincing argument (hujjat)
towards proper addressees.
As a result, millions of Hindus submitted to the Qur’an, manifesting once more
the victory of this Holy Scripture.
Conquest served as the initial of the four processes through which Islam
As Khaliq Ahmad Nizami has pointed out, “The growth of Muslim society in India
took place through four processes—conquest, conversion, colonization and
India and its
inhabitants welcomed the sufis à bras ouverts
(“with open arms”). Mass conversions to Islam, and sometimes instruction
“without demanding formal conversion,” was common from the twelfth to the
sixteenth centuries. “Muslim society grew in
through conversions which took place voluntarily at tribal levels, and often
through the peaceful persuasions of Muslim mystics,” writes Nizami,
summarizing how Islam permeated
The spiritual teachings, universal parables, charismatic style of reformation,
and lessons of love of the sufis attracted a large number of Hindus to Islam.
It was not the Muslim rulers who drew the masses to Islam, but the spiritual
sages. Sufism was the first Islamic discipline to undergo a process of
synthesizing institutionalization in India.
Indian Muslims also excelled in disciplines such as Islamic jurisprudence (fiqh),
Qur’anic exegesis (tafsir),
and hadith studies (ulum al-hadith).
Returning to the political side of the story—the impact of the great Mongol
invasions cannot be undermined at this juncture. The political landscape that
resulted from the Mongol invasions and conversion of their progeny to Islam
shaped much of the Islamic world for the next three centuries. The Mongol
invasion led to the formation of three kingdoms, all with their origins in the
Mongols and Turks: the Ottomans in present-day Turkey,
the Safavids in Persia,
and the Moghuls in
saw the beginning of the Moghul Empire in 1526 when Babur (1483-1530) conquered
Babur’s son, Humayun (1508-1556), and his son, Akbar (1542-1605), would extend
Mughal rule over much of
This empire lasted, in various sizes, until 1857.
The Mujaddid Alf Thani
the reign of Akbar (1556-1605), the mission of the Prophet Muhammad reached its
first millennium. The start of the second millennium posed a challenge to all
Muslims; they were introduced to new ideas that demanded serious rethinking of
the creedal tenets of Islam as mentioned in the Qur’an and explicated by the
Prophet. Akbar suggested a rough, underdeveloped, adulterated vision for the
second millennium: the concept of din-i ilahi
or divine religion, which was a mixture of Islam, Hinduism, Christianity, and
Zoroastrianism. Aziz Ahmad has noted that Akbar himself, as well as his
disciples, was not really serious about this heretical worldview.
Akbar’s syncretism was countered on the orthodox side by Mujaddid Alf-i Thani
(“The Reviver of the Second Millennium”) Shaykh Ahmad Sirhidni (1564-1624).
Sirhindi’s revivalist efforts included correcting the beliefs of the Muslims, a
great stress of sharia,
reprimanding reverential prostration (sajda al-tazimi)
in front of Kings and sufis, outlawing mystical audition (sama),
and disapproving the celebration of the Prophet’s birthday (milad).
His presence was felt at all levels of medieval Indian society, and within a
short span of time, his sufi tradition, the Naqshbandiyya-Mujadidiyya, etched
out a permanent place for itself in the sufi landscape of not only South Asia,
but also present-day Turkey and parts of central Asia.
the political realm, the main addressee of the Mujaddid was not Akbar, but his
son Jahangir. Earlier in his reign, Jahangir had imprisoned Shaykh Ahmad
Sirhindi, a decision he later reversed, after which he revered the Mujaddid as a
great protégé of Allah (wali Allah)
and bestowed gifts upon him. The fact that Jahangīr did not adhere to his
father’s din-i ilahi
suffices to illustrate that the Mujaddid had become victorious in the battle
between orthodoxy and heresy. The teachings of the Mujaddid and his likes
reached their climax when they were strictly adhered to by the Mughal emperor
Aurangzeb Alamgir (1659-1707). At the same time, signs indicating the decay of
Muslim power appeared in the last years of Alamgir’s rule and became fully
manifested after his demise. As Muslim power saw deterioration, their religious
life and tradition also experienced its consequences. In these chaotic times,
Indian Muslims had to rethink how to maintain their allegiance of their ideal
Islamic lifestyle. These conditions paved the way for Shah Wali Allah of
the eminent Islamic reviver of eighteenth-century Muslim India. Kenneth W. Jones
points out that Wali Allah “linked the decline of Muslim power and morality to
ignorance that resulted in an inability to comprehend the true nature of Islam.”
Shah Wali Allah
The ancestors of Shah Wali Allah were among the Quraishite families to settle in
during the reign of the Delhi Sultans. The family had the honor of serving as
religious judges (qadis)
in royal courts. His father, Shah Abd al-Rahim, was a genuine Muslim theologian
and sufi, who, according to Wali Allah, was blessed with many divine
inspirations and frequently had the honor of the Prophet’s visit in his dreams.
Wali Allah notes in Anfas al-arifin
that his father had been informed through divine inspiration that their
spiritual descendants will survive until the Day of Judgment. The indelible
impact of Wali Allah’s religious contributions, fresh thought, and harmonizing
method etches out a monumental place for him as the Muslim philosopher for
contemporary times. His unique understanding of the Qur’an and Sunna offers
promising solutions to the multi-dimensional problems of contemporary Muslims.
Wali Allah’s worldview, notes Akbar Ahmed, “were to shape the Islamic college at
Deoband and influence Muslims of all opinions.”
Describing the relationship between the Deobandi theologians and Wali Allah,
Hafeez Malik states, “The Deoband School, as the institution is known in the
subcontinent, stood for definite religio-political goals. Shah Waliullah was
their religious mentor, his works their textbooks. Their plan was to train
enough ulama to be able to send them out into the country where they would teach
Shah Waliullah’s philosophy in the mosques.”
The efforts of Shah Wali Allah’s family saw overwhelming success at the
theoretical level, they were instrumental in safeguarding Muslim tradition and
theology and attenuated immediate consequences of British imperialism; moreover,
they led to institutionalizing the systematic study of Qur’an and Hadith. In the
political domain, however, his successors saw no immediate fruition, but their
jihad movement in northwest
did “forecast the ideology of
The British had seized most of India
by divide et impera.
By 1857, the year of the Mutiny, majority of the Indian subcontinent was under
British rule. The Muslims, who had ruled
for about the past eight centuries, feared that their religious life would soon
fall prey to annihilation. This fear was felt even before 1857. The famous
verdict (fatwa) of
Shah Abd al-Aziz (1746-1824) describes India’s
shift from dar al-Islam
to partibus infidelium:
this city [of Delhi]
the Imam al-Muslimin
wields no authority, while the decrees of the Christian leaders are obeyed
without [fear of consequences]. Promulgation of the command of
kufr means that in the matter
of administration and the control of the people, in the levy of land-tax,
tributes, tolls and customs, in the punishment of thieves and robbers, in the
settlement of disputes, in the punishment of offences, the
kafirs act according to their
discretion. There are indeed certain Islamic rituals…with which they do not
interfere. But that is of no account. The basic principle of these rituals is of
no value to them, for they demolish mosques without the least hesitation and no
Muslim or dhimmi can
enter the city or its suburbs except with their permission...From here [Delhi]
the Christians are in complete control.”
When the jihad efforts of two of the main successors of Shah Abd al-Aziz, Sayyid
Ahmad Shahid of
and Shah Ismail Shahid, did not yield immediate results, Muslims of colonial
turned to the mediums of education and instruction in moral tutelage for the
preservation of Muslim tradition. The deteriorating Muslim power and
degenerating Muslim life created the grounds for new Islamic revival movements.
Institutionalization of Islamic Learning in the Colonial Period
Continuation of legacy,
religious excitement, despair and hope all describe the nineteenth century
Muslim sentiment in India.
In the first three decades of the 1800s, Shah Abd al-Aziz and the other sons of
Shah Wali Allah continued the legacy of their father, serving as living
prototypes of Islam’s intellectual heritage. Muslims were excited by the “Return
to the Basics,” the Tariqah-i Muhammadiyya
movement of Sayyid Ahmad Shahid of
and Shah Ismail Shahid. Their physical defeat in Balakot (1832), and the failure
of the Mutiny of 1857, led to vast despair. Towards the end of the century,
Muslims felt a sense of relief and hope with new educational institutions, such
as Sayyid Ahmad Khan’s Mohammedan
Aligarh, Mawlana Muhammad
Qasim Nanotwi’s Dar al-Ulum Deoband, and Mawlana Mongiri’s Nadwat al-Ulama in
Colonial rule heightened the Muslim concern with their religious identity. This
concern became the chief cause of a new institutionalization of Islamic learning
These institutions carried on the tradition of earlier Islamic academies of the
Madrasas have always
played important roles in Islamic societies, the Madrasa Nizamiyya in
for instance, was the center of religious scholarship for many centuries, where
Ghazali also taught for some years.
As Aziz Ahmad has noted that there were three centers of traditional Islamic
studies in nineteenth-century India:
“Most preeminent of these was the school of Wali-Allah in
where his son Shah Abd al-Aziz and his grandson Shah Muhammad Ishaq continued
his tradition with a consistently increasing shift in emphasis from speculative
fundamentalism towards eclectic traditionalism.”
The madrasa at
Faranghi Mahal was the oldest and tended to solely focus on “scholarship rather
than society or politics,” and had preserved the “sixteenth-century
Transoxianian emphasis on rationalism and jurisprudence, counterbalanced by a
penchant for mysticism.”
The third center, which focused on “studies of medieval philosophy and logic,”
was located northwest of Lucknow
in the city of Khairabad.
was about this time, roughly ten years after the Mutiny of 1857 that the
beginnings of a new traditionalist revival movement are laid down in the small
North Indian town of Deoband.
For many centuries, large urban areas, particularly
were the centers of Muslim scholarship. After the Mutiny, the
ulama, viewing smaller towns
and villages as their refuge, as Thomas R. Metcalf has indicated that the
“‘village community’ came to define an ordering of Indian society which was at
once unchanging and unthreatening,” diffused scholarship throughout the Gangetic
Towns and villages that hosted madrasas
or sufi hospices (khanqahs)
included Deoband, Gangoh, Kirana, Kandhla, and Thana Bhawan. Believing to be
divinely inspired, Mawlana Muhammad Qasim Nanotwi (1833-77) and Mawlana Rashid
Ahmad Gangohi (1829-1905), under the guidance of their Shaykh, Haji Imdad Allah,
founded the madrasa at
Deoband in 1867 which would become renowned as the Dar al-Ulum (“House of
These ulama trained
their students as active theologians equipped to preserve traditional Islamic
learning through their madrasas
and khanqahs. The
beginnings of the madrasa
at Deoband mirrored the simplicity and the informal instruction style found in
the Prophet’s mosque in Madina. Deoband started with two Mahmuds under a
pomegranate tree—one teacher, Mulla Mahmud, and the other his student, Mahmud
Hasan, who would later become popularly known as Shaykh al-Hind (The Shaykh of
India). The Dar al-Ulum Deoband, points out Peter Hardy, was the “most vital
school of ulama in
in the second half of the nineteenth century.”
Shedding further light on the significance of the Dar al-Ulum Deoband, Aziz
Deoband…rose to the stature of one of the most outstanding theological
seminaries in the Muslim world. It received a visit from Rashid Rida, and forged
links with the ulama
of al-Azhar…Within the subcontinent it produced most of the great
ulama of the second quarter
of the twentieth century: Ashraf Ali Thanawi, who popularized traditional
Islam among the less educated, apart from his authorship of monumental
This madrasa at
Deoband not only produced leading Islamic scholars, but also fostered
traditional Muslim life and provided the Muslims with religious leadership and
instruction. From Muhammad ibn Qasim to Muhammad Qasim Nanotwi therefore is a
summary of the unfolding of Islamic orthodoxy in the Indian milieu.
Wolpert, A New History of
Press, 2004), 105.
Said Ahmad Akbarabadi, Musalmano ka uruj-o zawal
Idara Islamiyyat, n.d.), 212. Aziz Ahmad, Studies
in Islamic Culture in the Indian Environment
(Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1964), 3.
Sayyid Sulayman Nadwi, Arab va Hind ke taalluqat
(Karachi: Karim Sons, 1972), 14.
Annemarie Schimmel, Pain and Grace: A Study of
Two Mystical Writers of Eighteenth-Century Muslim India
(Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1976), 3.
Shah Wali Allah, Al-Fauz al-Kabir fī usul al-tafsir:
The Principles of Quran Commentary.
National Hijra Council, 1985.
Ahmad Nizami, “Hind, v. –Islam.” EI,
3: 428. The last quote is also from this source.
“Hind, v. –Islam.” EI,
conversions to Islam are not a thing of the past, until today Islam holds an
appeal for those suffering from untouchability within the caste system. For
recent conversions, see Abdul Malik Mujahid,
Conversion to Islam: Untouchables’s Strategy for Protest in India
(Chambersburg, PA: Anima Books, 1989).
 For a
detailed study of sufism in the Indian Subcontinent, see Athar Abbas Rizvi,
A History of Sufism in India.
2 vols (Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal, 1983).
analysis of the intellectual contributions of Indian Muslims can be found in
Aziz Ahmad, An Intellectual History of Islam in
India (Edinburgh: Edinburgh Unviersity Press,
Aziz Ahmad’s treatment of the whole episode,
Islamic Culture in the Indian Environment, 167-181.
biographical material, see Mawlana Abul Hasan Ali Nadwi,
Tarikh-i Dawat-o Azimat,
volume 4; Mawlana Muhammad Manzur Numani, Tazkira-i
Imam-i Rabbani Mujaddid Alf-i Sani (Karachi: Dar
al-Ishat, n.d.); Mawlana Sayyid Muhammad Mian,
Ulama-i Hind ka shandar madi, volume I (Karachi:
Maktaba-i Rashidiyya, 1991); Muhammad Abdul Haq Ansari,
Sufism and Shari‘ah: A Study of Shaykh Ahmad Sirhindi’s
Effort to Reform Sufism (Leicester: Islamic
Foundation, 1986); and Yohannan Friedmann, Shaykh
Ahmad Sirhindi: An Outline of His Thought and a Study of His Image in the Eyes
of Posterity (New Delhi: Oxford University Press,
Kenneth W. Jones, Socio-Religious Reform
Movements in British India
(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), 18.
detailed surveys of the life and thought of Shah Wali Allah, see Mawlana Abul
Hasan Ali Nadwi, Tarikh-i Dawat-o Azimat,
volume 5; J. M. S. Baljon, Religion and Thought of
Shah Wali Allah Dihlawi, 1703-1762.
E. J. Brill, 1986; Ghulam Hussain Jalbani, Life of
Shah Waliyullah. Lahore:
Ashraf, 1967; Saiyid Athar Abbas Rizvi. Shah Wali-Allah
and His Times. Canberra:
Marifat Publishing House, 1980; and Mahmood Ahmad Ghazi.
Islamic Renaissance in South Asia
(1707-1867): The Role of Shah Waliallah and His Successors.
Adam Publishers, 2004.
Ahmed, Discovering Islam: Making Sense of Muslim
History and Society (London:
Routledge, 2002), 78.
Malik, Moslem Nationalism in India
Public Affairs Press,
Ahmad, Islamic Culture in the Indian Environment,
in Barbara Daly Metcalf, Islamic Revival in
Deoband, 1860-1900 (Princeton: Princeton
University Press, 1982), 46.
the most comprehensive study of the ulama
between Shah Wali Allah and Ashraf Ali Thanawi is Farhan Ahmad Nizami, “Madrasahs,
Scholars and Saints: Muslim Response to the British Presence in Delhi and the
Upper Doab, 1803-1857.” Ph.D. diss.
1983. Unfortunately, this study has not yet been published.
useful study of the traditional roles of a madrasa
in Islamic societies is Gary Leiser, “Notes on the Madrasa in Medieval Islamic
Society.” The Muslim World
76 (1986): 16-23.
Ahmad, Islamic Modernism in India
1857-1964. (London: Oxford University Press,
Ahmad, Islamic Modernism,
Ahmad, Islamic Modernism,
R. Metcalf, Ideolgies of the Raj
(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987), 71.
 For a
scholarly study of the beginnings of the Dar al-Ulum Deoband, see Barbara Daly
Metcalf, Islamic Revival in
Deoband, 1860-1900 (Princeton: Princeton
University Press, 1982).
Hardy, The Muslims of
(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1972), 170.
Ahmad, Islamic Modernism,