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Muslim Legends

Shibli Nomani (scholar, author, educator)

Shibli Nomani was an exception to the rule in that he was not from the Naqshbandi line of Delhi ulema-Sufis, although he was influenced by Shah Waliullah. He was, however, an alim concerned with reforming the ulema so that they could be effective guides to the Muslim community, a scholar who wrote and published prolifically and nurtured younger authors, a leader in the movement to advance the Urdu language as a modern vehicle of expression, and an educator associated with Aligarh College and the Nadwatul-Ulema reformist madrasa in Lucknow.

Shibli was a Muslim Rajput from the Azamgarh area in the then-United Provinces’ eastern reaches. Shibli had a classical Islamic education, while his younger brothers attended Aligarh. Maulana Muhammad Farooq Chirayakoti, a rationalist scholar and ardent opponent of Sir Syed, was his tutor. Shibli’s ambiguous relationship with Aligarh and Sir Syed may be explained by this element of his history. The link to Chirayakot is significant.

As a result, Shibli had reasons to be both drawn to and repelled by Aligarh. Even after securing a position as a Persian and Arabic teacher at Aligarh, he was disappointed by the intellectual atmosphere at the college and eventually resigned because he felt it uninviting.

Sir Syed died in 1898, yet he did not officially resign from the college until after his death. Shibli was a unique thinker who united logic and clarity of communication with a sense of aesthetics. These qualities may be seen in his literary style, and they are likely what drew him to the young Azad, and vice versa.

Shibli travelled extensively in West Asia in the early 1890s, visiting educational institutions and libraries in Turkey, Egypt, and Syria for his own studies and meeting thinkers such as Sheikh Muhammad Abduh (1849-1905) and other Islamic reformers in Cairo. Shibli worked for a period in the Nizam’s government’s educational service in Hyderabad after leaving Aligarh, but found it unappealing, so he moved to north India, where he became the secretary and guiding light of the Nadwatul Ulema’s madrasa in Lucknow.

The Nadwa was an association of ulema with varied institutional ties that was created in 1893. Maulana Syed Muhammad Ali Mongiri, a knowledgeable Naqshbandi who carried on Shah Waliullah’s objective of encouraging Muslim unity, was one of its inspiring figures. The Nadwa was established to bring together the eastern and western schools of thought, or Deoband and Aligarh, and to unite the ulema for the purpose of preaching and protecting Islam. To do this, Nadwa avoided difficult themes and urged ulema to put their differences aside and increase communication by conducting annual meetings.

However, as Shibli eventually discovered, the Nadwa was not always able to avoid divisions in its ranks or during its sessions. The Nadwa established the Darul Ulum madrasa in 1898 with the goal of producing a new generation of modernised ulema by blending the finest of Islamic and western learning into its curriculum.

The school developed a reputation for excellent scholarship, produced a journal called Al-Nadwa, and amassed an impressive library under Shibli’s leadership. It also received British government support for the construction of an imposing structure on the Gomti’s bank, as well as the establishment of English and mathematical education.

Later, the Nadwa abandoned its hopes of integrating occidental and eastern knowledge in favour of Islamic research and the dissemination of Urdu biographical and historical writing. The latter was put in motion by Shibli’s own writings. Biographies of the caliphs Mamun and Umar, the jurist Imam Abu Hanifa, al-Ghazali, the poet Rumi, and the Prophet Muhammad, as well as two theological writings, were among his works. These writings not only introduced Western historiography and biography to Urdu, but they also served as a rebuttal to western and Christian criticisms of Islam and Muslim heroes. Shibli also published poetry, literary criticism, and several essays and correspondence, including a massive study of Persian poetry.

Shibli’s two theological works, Ilm-al-Kalam and Al-Kalam, show both similarities and differences with Sir Syed’s rationalism. They have comparable sources and inspirations, but Shibli differs with Sir Syed when it comes to the relationship between God’s work (science, or nature) and God’s word (religion, or revelation). He claims that science and religion are two separate spheres that have nothing to do with one another. The first is concerned with visible occurrences, while the second is concerned with topics that are beyond the scope of observation or experimentation. As a result, they don’t contradict one other, yet neither can be used to corroborate the other.

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