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Friday Sermons


The Text and a Muslim Author’s Paternalistic Nurturing:
The Literary Contributions of Ashraf Ali Thanawi (1863-1943)

By Ali Altaf Mian

What is a text, and what must the psyche be if it can be represented by a text?

                                                                                      —Jacques Derrida

Writs/Writing of a Muslim Author
Using Mawlana Ashraf Ali Thanawi, who was quite a prolific author, I attempt to answer this question put forth by Derrida. Thanawi is a celebrated figure of religious authority and reverence, and above all, a commemorative author within the Deobandi school of Islamic thought in the Indian subcontinent. His literary contributions form a major part of the Deobandi tradition. As Furqan Ahmad has pointed out, “If the number of days he lived for is distributed over the number of pages of his works, the latter would undoubtedly exceed the former.”
[i] Numerous Muslim theologians associated with this school of thought use him as an icon of Islamic scholarship. By extending his unique neologisms and phrases and the themes of his thought to their own works and words, the Deobandis perpetuate a fairly profound theological discourse. Without any exaggeration, Thanawi is the greatest of the Deobandi ulama when it comes to religious literature. This is clearly visible in the following words of the historian of the Deoband seminary, Sayyid Mahboob Rizvi:

In the field of literature, the brief and lengthy books of a single august man, Hakim al-Ummat Mawlana Ashraf Ali Thanawi are said to number nearly one thousand. From the religious and reformative points of view, there is no aspect of life that remained unattended by his pen. In respect of prolificacy and utility of books, he has had no equal among the Indian authors.[ii]

It is said that his literary contributions, a maximis ad minima, “range from 800 to 1000 in the shape of sermons, discussions, discourses, treatises, and books of high standard and quality.”[iii] Highlighting the canonized part of this huge colossus of Thanawi literature, Mufti Mahmud Hasan Gangohi said:

Mawlana Ashraf Ali Thanawi wrote a Qur’anic exegesis, the famous Bayan al-Qur’an. In the Hadith sciences, he oversaw the compilation of Ila al-sunan. He wrote many books to fortify Hanafi fiqh. He also made excellent contributions in tasawwuf, for example At-Takashuf fi muhimat al-tasawwuf, and Bawadir al-nawadir, among others.[iv]

Thanawi’s various works illustrate that he was well-versed in multiple disciples of the Islamic sciences. His specialty, however, was Sufism and an intellectual/rational synthesis of the sharia. Nonetheless, Thanawi was an interdisciplinary, erudite Muslim scholar who put his pen to extensive use in preserving and augmenting the traditional discourse. Explaining this, one of his disciples, Sayyid Sulayman Nadwi said, “Mawlana Thanawi was a translator, exegete (mufassir), and explicator of the Qur’an. He explained its injunctions and wisdoms. He is the remover of doubts and the answerer of questions pertaining to the Qur’an. He is a scholar of Hadith (muhaddith) and expounds its intricacies and subtleties. He is a jurist (faqih), who has composed thousands of juristic rulings. He has solved many legal challenges in contemporary problems in Islamic jurisprudence and has answered them with the utmost caution and credible research. He was a moving orator (khatib), who collected all skills of oration in his speech. He was an excellent admonisher (wa’iz) and hundreds of his speeches have been published and widely circulated. Mawlana Thanawi was a sufi, who revealed the secrets and delicacies of Islamic spirituality. His personality put an end to the battle that had been going on for some time between sharia and tasawwuf by unifying these two essential parts of Islam.”[v]

Thanawi wrote mostly in Urdu, albeit he does have some Arabic and a few Persian tracts to his credit as well. His most famous book is undoubtedly Bihishti Zewar (Heavenly Ornaments), which has become a handbook for leading an Islamic life in many Indo-Pak Muslim households. Although he was the most prolific author of his times, he never used any one of his books to earn money. His writings serve as a tool of authentication for many of his successors. Through summarizing his writings, they express their allegiance to their shaykh or their shaykh’s shaykh. Through carrying on his legacy, they hope to validate their own claims to authenticity and traditional Islam. In this essay, by focusing on Thanawi the writer, I present how his literary legacy can continue to inspire future generations of Muslim writers.

Paternalistic Responsibilities
“When I am in the process of composing a pamphlet or a book,” said Ashraf Ali Thanawi, “I do not neglect a day in writing it.”
[vi] The first lesson we learn from this is that writing is a process, it does not happen overnight, but rather takes different turns and allows the writer to experience it as something that is both effected by the author’s transformations and affects further changes in the author. These transformations may pertain to the style or the content of the text. The second lesson Thanawi imparts in these words is that one should try to maintain continuity in the writing process, for it is something that demands continuous attention, prolonged nurturing from the author. When one spares daily time for the writing project, it soon becomes a part of the author’s life. The text’s growth is proportionate to the amount of attention it receives from its writer, its parent. The written word is thus a product of the thinking/reflective self. When Thanawi says, “I do not neglect a day in writing it,” in fact he is expressing how much he cares and nurtures his writing with his intellectual attention. In other words, Thanawi’s reflective self took care of the “child text,” revising it, editing it, and modifying it until it reached its own completion. Although Thanawi did not have any human children, hundreds of “children texts” were fathered by him.   

Thanawi further said, “Some days when I have no time, I still write down a single line for blessing (barakat), this way I keep an ongoing relationship with the text, because if there is neglect, then, due to a distancing from the text, it is hard to come back to it.”[vii] Thanawi the writer next teaches his acolytes that even if you are extremely busy, do give daily time to the “child text.” Give at least one morsel of intellectual output to your literary project, for in one line, or in one sentence, the “child text” may find blessing (barakat) from its father the author. Thanawi teaches Muslim writers that it is important that they keep an ongoing relationship with their writing. Do not forsake your intellectual endeavors, but give them your attention. As an author, and the father of the “child text,” if one distances himself from the text, it will also eschew its father-author. If one does not take care of the composed word, it might start to hate its father, revolting against the father figure it sees in the author. An unwillingness of the text to go along with the author's predilection can thus be seen as its revolta revolt of the abandoned child.

Thanawi teaches Muslim authors not to distance themselves from their work. Authors who emulate Thanawi’s model should keep their minds preoccupied and should remain in a state of alert. They ought to always search for beneficial food they can feed their child-text. If they avoid this responsibility, Thanawi says, “it is hard to come back” to that which was once a product of the self, but now a distanced other. This is perhaps the reason why Thanawi had to his credit hundreds of books, for he was a responsible father, who fed hundreds of pages with his brilliant wisdom. And to answer the question raised in the epigraph, Thanawi might be indirectly saying that the psyche, as represented by its relationship with a text, is both the nurturing father-author and the attention seeking child-text. It is precisely the author-father’s role to give the child-text a form, and not to deform it.


               [i] Furqan Ahmad, 72. For longer bibliographical entries, see Mawlana Thanawi Bibliography (also available at Maktaba al-Ashrafia).

                [ii] Rizvi, History of the Dar al-‘Ulum Deoband, 1: 396.

                [iii] Khawaja, vii.

                [iv] Malfuzat-i Faqih al-Ummat, 1: 91

                [v] Alawi, 293.

                [vi] Malfuzat-i Hakim al-Ummat 23:468.

                [vii] Malfuzat-i Hakim al-Ummat 23:468.