Scholarship and activism

Print edition : January 22, 2000
Ali Mian, 1914-1999. MUSHIRUL HASAN

ONCE upon a time Lucknow was the home of many leading educational institutions. In the early 18th century Farangi Mahall, which nowadays languishes in a faceless alley of Chowk, was probably one of the largest centres of learning in India. It attracted s cholars not only from all parts of India but also from places as far away as Arabia, Central Asia and China. Yet Farangi Mahall lost its pivotal position in Lucknow for a variety of reasons. One of them was the establishment of the Nadwat al-ulama in the same city in 1894. The University of Nadwat al-ulama had been established, wrote Abul Halim Sharar, the master storyteller in the early 1920s, to pay special attention to those subjects that had so far been neglected. But as the decades rolled on, the N adwa developed conservative contours of its own, and its product became generally indistinguishable from those of the Deoband seminary in terms of theological and intellectual outlook. Both adhered to the curriculum (Dars-i Nizamiya) drawn up in t he 18th century. Today, the Nadwa has over 2,000 students, with a large number of affiliated schools in India, Pakistan and Nepal. But its students, according to a Government of India report (1983), are "totally devoid of modern secular education, which is essential to help them face the realities outside."

Maulana Abul Hasan Ali Nadwi nursed and headed such an institution for well over three decades. Ali Mian, as he was popularly known, is no more. But this spiritual and intellectual mentor of the north Indian Muslims will be remembered for his piety, his profound scholarship and erudition. A prolific writer with over 50 publications to his credit, he wrote in Arabic and Urdu. Most of his works, available in English translation, are widely read in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Egypt, Syria and Lebanon. His death has created a void in the world of Islamic scholarship in the subcontinent. It is hard to see anybody replacing him in the near future. His death has saddened many of his followers and admirers, notably in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, who followed his religious decrees (fatwa) and paid heed to his advice.

The fundamental malaise of modern Islam, remarked Wilfred Cantwell Smith with great insight, is a sense that something has gone wrong with Islamic history. The fundamental problem of modern Muslims is how to rehabilitate that history. This feeling, as re flected in his book, Islam and the World, dominated the religious and political thought of Ali Mian. His studies led him to conclude that Muslims did not merely attain political and intellectual supremacy and found extensive and large empires, but they also surpassed at one time all other nations in the field of knowledge and intellectual endeavour. In contemporary times, however, the world of Islam was in the throes of a crisis of confidence. The way out was to take advantage of the intellectual resources of the West. At the same time, Ali Mian called upon his co-religionists to take pride in and adhere to the legacy bequeathed by the Prophet of Islam. "This happy coordination between the ends and means... can alter the destiny of the world.... (And) this laudable task can be accomplished by no other people than the Muslims who are the successors of the last of the Apostles and the inheritors of his Message."

These are fairly well-worn-out ideas. His other writings make him appear socially conservative, opposed to change, innovation and reform. For example, he said that if the forces of "moral degradation" (including the abolition of purdah) were free to work themselves out, the "rising generations in the Muslim countries would have drifted so far away from their spiritual moorings that no urge would be left in them to strive against the mounting pressures of modernism and westernism." This is what le d the venerable Maulana to decry doggedly the Supreme Court judgment on Shah Bano's plea for maintenance. This is what prompted him to defend Zia-ul-Haq's coup d'etat. Oddly enough, he called the death of the Pakistani strongman a martyrdom (sh ahadat), a setback to the Islamic community.

Yet within the framework of traditional Islamic scholarship, Ali Mian was perhaps the most outstanding Muslim scholar in post-1947 India. He travelled far and wide in his quest for knowledge, pursued his intellectual probing in the company of Jamaat-i-Is lami and Tablighi Jamaat activists, and eventually prepared his own blueprint for a safe and secure future for his co-religionists. "The clouds will disperse", he wrote with pontifical authority in 1960, "and there will be sunshine again. The Muslims wil l regain the position in the country that is justly theirs. All the schemes for national reconstruction will remain incomplete if they are left to rot and decay."

It is this optimism that may have led Ali Mian to combine his scholarly preoccupation with activism. Shibli Numani, founder of the Nadwa, had insisted that a very large part of the national life was in the ulama right of ownership (haq-i malkia t) and they alone had or could have absolute sway (mutlaq-al anaan) over it. Ali Mian was wedded to this principal shibboleth in Sunni Islam. He was a founder member of the Islamic World League, based in Saudi Arabia, and the All-India Muslim Personal Law Board. At the time when the Shah Bano issue divided the Muslim intelligentsia into two camps, they turned to him for guidance. At the time when the Babri Masjid-Ram Janmabhoomi controversy inflamed religious passions, they sought his mediati on. He did not disappoint on either count. Playing the role of a priest-politician perfectly, he operated effectively from his home in Rae Bareli to leave his imprint on the course of events from the mid-1980s. It is said that he frequented the corridors of power to advice Rajiv Gandhi to introduce the Muslim Women's Bill. P.V. Narasimha Rao also sought his advice on the Babri Masjid issue. No wonder, political parties of all hues, having dumped the Imam of Delhi's Juma Masjid, courted him to secure leg itimacy among Muslims and to gauge the "Muslim mind". He was sedulously cultivated as the wise, sagacious and influential Muslim statesman. Wise and sagacious he was, but I very much doubt if he carried much weight outside the Urdu-speaking belt in north ern India.

Ali Mian would not have expected me to write his obituary, but I have done so as a tribute to his scholarship but not his Islamist worldview. He has left behind a rich intellectual legacy, although it must be carried forth in the eclectic spirit that had guided the founders of Nadwa. In the final analysis, the initiative for a real reformation of Islam in India, the raison d'etre of Syed Ahmad Khan's activities, has to come from such institutions, and has to be thought out and translated into pra ctice by Muslims. Perhaps the starting point in the Koranic injunction:

God changes not what is in a people, until they change what is in themselves ...

Mushirul Hasan teaches Modern Indian History at Delhi's Jamia Millia Islamia.

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