al-ummat mujaddide millat
Mawlana Ashraf Ali
رحمة الله عليه
Account of the "Sage of Thana Bhawan"
by Ali Altaf Mian
Mawlana Ashraf Ali Thanawi, referred to by many South Asian
Muslims as ‘Physician of the Muslims’ [Hakim al-ummat] and
‘Reformer of the Nation’ [Mujaddid al-Millat], is a towering
figure of Islamic revival and reawakening of South Asia in the
Twentieth-Century. Mawlana Thanawi, in the words of Fuad S. Naeem,
was the “most eminent religious figure of his time, a prolific
author, and believed to be the greatest Sufi saint of modern India.
He led a very active life, teaching, preaching, writing, lecturing,
and making occasional journeys” (Lumbard 94). His distinguishing
mark and guiding principle that led to the vast success of his
message was a remarkable sense of balance and straightforwardness
found in his speeches, writings, and training. If somebody, in
contemporary times, demands a proof for the following Qur’anic
verse, “Thus have We made of you a Nation justly balanced, that you
might be witnesses over mankind” (al-Baqarah: 143), Mawlana
Thanawi’s life and religious approach would prove to be a most
appropriate example. The coherence of all branches of Islamic
learning was harmonized in his personality, explicated in his
lectures, and recorded in his writings. Qadhi Mujahidul Islam Qasmi
said, “A special unity and coherence is evident in the personality
of Mawlana Ashraf Ali Thanawi, it is hard to think of an area of
Islamic sciences left unattended by his writings” (Zaid 11). His
religious approach encompasses all aspects of the subject under
discussion, and his viewpoints on different issues reflect a
genuine, thorough examination of traditional Islamic thought. His
acute intelligence, revolutionary method of training and teaching,
love of Allah and the Messenger, organized management of time,
broadmindedness, tolerance, and a unique and fresh, yet conservative
understanding of religious disciplines has allotted for him a
permanent place in Islamic history. He will be remembered as a
reformer of the masses, an exemplary spiritual guide [shaykh],
a prolific author, a spiritual jurist, an intellectual sage, and a
fortifier of Islamic tradition who supplied the Muslims, at a time
when they were physically and intellectually attacked by Western
colonial powers, with literary and academic wealth in the form of
his speeches, writings, verdicts [fatawa], and spiritual
training [tarbiya] to battle all irreligious influences of
the Modern Age. Describing the great religious services and
endeavors of Mawlana Thanawi, Mufti Muhammad Taqi Uthmani writes,
“The likeness of his accomplishments is not found in many preceding
centuries” (Islam aur Siyasat 22).
Birth and Upbringing
Mawlana Ashraf Ali
Thanawi, named Abdul Ghani by his paternal family, was born in the
village of Thana Bhawan (in the Muzaffarnagar district of the Uttar
Pardesh province of India) on 5 Rabi al-Thani 1280 AH
(September 19, 1863 CE).
He was named Ashraf Ali by the renowned and famous saint of the
times Hafiz Ghulam Murtadha Panipati, who was also a relative of the
maternal family of Mawlana Thanawi. His family was well-respected
and held an eminent position in Thana Bhawan. His father, Abdul Haq,
was a wealthy landowner, a devout Muslim, and a respected citizen of
Thana Bhawan. Abdul Haq was well-versed in Farsi, and although he
was not a hafiz of the Qur’an but knew the Holy Book so well by
heart that sometimes he would correct the recitation of the Imam in
the prayer. Mawlana Ashraf Ali Thanawi’s lineage can be traced back
to the second Caliph of Islam, Umar ibn al-Khattab, a glimpse of
whose intelligence, wisdom, foresightedness, piety, and sincerity
was certainly visible in Mawlana Thanawi. As a young boy, he had a
zeal for offering the prayer [salah] and by age twelve, he
was constant in night vigil [tahajjud]. He attained his early
Arabic and Persian education under his maternal uncle Wajid Ali and
Maulana Fat‘h Muhammad in Thana Bhawan and also memorized the holy
Qur’an at a tender age from Hafiz Hussain Ali of Meerut.
Traditional Studies at the Deoband
From 1295 to 1301 Hijri, Mawlana Thanawi studied at the prestigious
Deoband Seminary (Darul Uloom Deoband), from where he graduated in 1301
A.H. after studying under some of the most erudite Islamic theologians
of his time. Among his teachers were Mawlana Muhammad Qasim Nanotawi,
Mawlana Rasheed Ahmad Gangohi, Mawlana Muhammad Yaqub Nanotawi, and
Shaykh al-Hind Mawlana Mehmoodul Hasan. Mawlana Thanawi’s six years
at Deoband were spent under the tutorship and guidance of God-fearing
saints and Gnostics, many of whom were the spiritual students of Haji
Imdadullah Muhajir Makki. The spiritually filled atmosphere of Darul
Uloom Deoband coupled with brilliant teachers, and Mawlana Thanawi’s own
intelligence and piety are all factors that contributed to the
excellence of theory and practice that was manifested in his
personality. His literary life started at the Deoband Seminary when he
was only eighteen years of age and wrote Mathnawi Zer-o-Bam in
Farsi. He possessed unmatched linguistic skills and had mastered the
languages of Arabic, Farsi, and Urdu by age eighteen.
Teachers of the Teacher
Mawlana Thanawi did not have many opportunities to study under the
founder of the Deoband Seminary, Mawlana Qasim Nanotawi, whose last year
was Mawlana Thanawi’s first year at Deoband. However, Mawlana Thanawi
mentions that he would occasionally attend the Jalalayn (an
Exegesis of the Holy Qur’an) lecture by Mawlana Qasim Nanotawi. The two
personalities from whom Mawlana Thanawi greatly benefited from are
Mawlana Rasheed Ahmad Gangohi and Mawlana Muhammad Yaqub Nanotawi.
Mawlana Thanawi says, “Among my teachers, I was
spiritually attached to Mawlana Gangohi more than anybody else with the
exception of Haji Imdadullah Muhajir Makki. I had never witnessed such a
unique personality, in whom external and internal goodness merged so
cohesively, like Mawlana Rasheed Ahmad Gangohi” (Alwi 51). Mawlana
Thanawi received much affection and spiritual training from Mawlana
Gangohi as well. Upon the arrival of Mawlana Thanawi, Mawlana Gangohi
would say, “When you arrive, I become alive” (Alwi 52). Once Mawlana
Thanawi had come to Gangoh to deliver a lecture, Mawlana Gangohi sent
all his visitors to attend this lecture, saying to them, “What are you
doing here?, go and listen to the lecture of a truthful scholar,”
Mawlana Gangohi would also send some of his students to Thana Bhawan to
benefit from the ocean of knowledge and spirituality that was known as
Ashraf Ali Thanawi.
Mawlana Thanawi was also deeply inspired by Mawlana
Muhammad Yaqub Nanotawi, a sanctimonious theologian and a divine mystic.
Mawlana Yaqub had sensed that Ashraf Ali was a special student, endowed
with extraordinary qualities. As a result, Mawlana Yaqub would make sure
to include the most intricate discussions while teaching this bright
student. Mawlana Thanawi, describing the lectures of Mawlana Yaqub,
said, “His lectures were not ordinary lectures, but sessions in which
one’s attention turned towards Allah. He would be teaching exegesis of
the Holy Qur’an and tears would be flowing down his cheeks” (Alwi 51).
Graduation and Pilgrimage to Makka [hajj]
Mawlana Thanawi graduated in 1301 A.H. (1884 C.E.) from the Deoband
Seminary. When Mawlana Rasheed Ahmad Gangohi arrived for the graduation
ceremony, Shaykhul Hind [Shaykh of India] Mawlana Mehmoodul Hasan
informed him that today a very bright and intelligent student will be
graduating. Mawlana Gangohi wanted to test this bright student. Hence,
before the actual ceremony, Mawlana Gangohi posed the hardest questions
he could think of before Mawlana Thanawi. His answers amazed and pleased
Mawlana Gangohi (Quraishi 14). At the graduation, ceremonial procession
of tying a turban [dastaarbandi] was carried out by Mawlana
Rasheed Ahmad Gangohi. The graduation ceremony of that year stood out
from the past and was celebrated with great enthusiasm and joy by the
teachers of the Deoband Seminary. At this occasion, Mawlana Thanawi,
with some classmates, said to his teacher Mawlana Yaqub, “We are not
deserving of such a celebration and our graduation might bring derision
for Darul Uloom Deoband.” Upon hearing this concern from Mawlana Thanawi,
Mawlana Yaqub became thrilled and said, “This thinking of yours is
completely wrong! At Darul Uloom Deoband, you perceive of your
personality as very meek and insignificant because of your teachers, and
in fact, this is how you should feel. But, once you graduate and step
out of this institution, then you will realize your worth and
importance. I swear by Allah, you will prevail and become dominant
wherever you go, the field is open and empty (for you)” (Alwi 53). After
graduating from Deoband, Mawlana Thanawi accompanied his father to the
Holy cities of Makka and Medina. After performing his first pilgrimage [hajj],
Mawlana Thanawi mastered the art of Qur’anic recitation under Qari
Muhammad Abdullah Muhajir Makki. In Makka he also had the opportunity to
stay in the companionship of Haji Imdadullah Muhajir Makki, whose
spiritual attention, luminous personality, radiant teachings, and
excellent methodology of training prepared Mawlana Thanawi for the great
reform movement that had been predestined for him.
Teaching Career at Kanpur
Fourteen years after graduation were spent teaching religious sciences
in the city of Kanpur. Over a very short period of time, Mawlana Thanawi
acquired a reputable position as a sound religious scholar. His teaching
attracted many pupils and his research and publications enhanced Islamic
academia. In these fourteen years, he traveled to many villages and
cities, delivering lectures in hope of reforming people. Printed
versions of his lectures and discourses would usually become available
shortly after these tours. Very few scholars in the history of Islam had
their lectures printed and widely circulated in their own lifetimes. The
desire to reform the masses intensified in his heart during his stay at
Kanpur. Eventually in 1315 AH, he retired from teaching and devoted
himself to reestablishing the spiritual center [khanqah] of his
Shaykh in Thana Bhawan. Upon this transition, Haji Imdadullah remarked,
“It is good that you came to Thana Bhawan, it is hoped that the masses
will benefit from you spiritually and physically. You should engage
yourself in revitalizing our seminary [madrassah] and spiritual
center [khanqah] once more in Thana Bhawan. As for myself, I am
always praying for you and attentive towards you” (Alwi 58).
Rooting Out of Irreligious Practices
Every true Islamic reformer roots out the irreligious practices of
people that they perform in the name of religion. Mawlana Thanawi,
through his speeches and writings, battled against all evil innovations
in religion and presented Islam as it stood in light of the Qur’an and
Hadith. Mawlana Thanawi was deeply concerned about the ignorance of
those Muslims who perform many unnecessary acts perceiving them to be
righteous acts of religion. Hence, he wrote many books that dealt with
this subject. His book Hifz al-Iman clearly explains the evils
with acts such as grave worshipping, beseeching other than Allah,
believing in the omnipresence of the Prophet and saints, etc. Another
Aghlat al-Awam is an earnest effort to root out all un-Islamic rituals
prevalent among people. Innovations in belief, worship, and transactions
are condemned in this book. Mawlana Thanawi’s balanced approach places
all religious injunctions at their proper place without excess [ifrat]
or deficit [tafreet].
Humility and Simplicity
Mufti Muhammad Taqi Uthmani says, “Hakim al-ummah
Mawlana Ashraf Ali Thanawi used to say, ‘I consider my self inferior to
every Muslim at the present time and inferior to every non-Muslim in
respect to the future’. Meaning that at this time, I am inferior to
every Muslim, and inferior than every non-Muslim in respect to the
future, because a non-Muslim may accept Islam in the future and become
more advanced than myself” (Uthmani, Irshadate Akabir 25).
Mawlana Thanawi was more concerned with rectifying his own self than
correcting others. Once when he had to deliver many lectures, he said,
“Whenever I find the need of reforming myself, I speak on that specific
shortcoming of mine. This method is very beneficial. My speech entitle
(Anger) is an example of this” (Alwi 131). After praising Allah, Mawlana
Thanawi says, “I am never unmindful of taking accountability of my own
self. Whenever I admonish a disciple of mine, I also inspect my own self
and continuously seek Allah’s protection from His accountability” (Alwi
Mawlana Thanawi was not a politician, Mufti Muhammad Taqi Uthmani
explains, “and neither were politics his subject of interest” (Islam
22). However, Islam is a lifestyle encompassing all human activities and
providing clear and full guidelines for all walks of life, hence, at
appropriate places in his speeches and writings Mawlana Thanawi does
comment on politics and provides his useful explanation in that field.
While battling secularism, many contemporary Muslims, perceived Islam as
a branch of government and politics. Mawlana Thanawi proved, mainly
using Qur’anic verses, that political rule is only a means of
instituting Islam in our lives and not the purpose of life itself. All
modern political notions in contradiction with the Qur’an and Hadith
would have to be forsaken and the pure, untainted political thought
reflected in the Qur’an and Hadith should guide the Muslims in
organizing and structuring their governments.
Death of a Great Sage
Mawlana Thanawi toiled to reform the masses and trained a large
number of disciples who spread all over the South Asian
Subcontinent. None can deny that his efforts brought a large number
of Muslims back to the true teachings of Islam. Mawlana Thanawi
passed away in his hometown of Thana Bhawan on Rajab 2, 1362 ah
(July 4, 1943 CE). His funeral prayer was led by his nephew, the
great scholar of hadith Mawlana Z afar Ahmad ‘Uthmani, and he was
buried in the ‘Ishq-e Bazan graveyard. Mawlana Thanawi will be
remembered for his inspiring, lucid, and rational writing, balanced
approach, and reformative teachings. These still serve many Muslims
today in helping them understand the Qur’an and the Sunna.
Alwi, Masud Ahsan. Ma‘athir-e Hakim al-Ummat.
Lahore: Idara Islamiyyat, 1986.
Daryabadi, Mawlana Abd al-Majid. Hakim al-Ummat:
Nuqush-o ta’asurat. Lahore: Maktaba-e Madania.
Ghawri, Aziz al-Hasan “Majdhub.” Ashraf al-sawanih.
4 vols. Multan: Idara T‘alifat-e Ashrafiyya, 1995.
Khan, Munshi ‘Abd al-Rahman. Sirat-e Ashraf.
2 vols. Multan: Idara T‘alifat-e Ashrafiyya, 1996.
Muhammad, Mawlana Ghulam. Hayat-e Ashraf.
Karachi: Maktaba-e Thanawi, n.d.
Muhammad Taqi. Hakim al-Ummat ke siyasi afkar (The political views
of Hakim al-Ummat) in Islam awr Siyasat. Multan: Idara
Ta’lifat-e Ashrafiyya, n.d.
Zaid, Mufti Muhammad. Ashraf al-‘amliyat. Hatora: Idara
Ifadat-e Ashrafiyya, 1994.
_____. Dini dawat-o tabligh ke usul-o ahkam. Multan: Idara
T‘alifat-e Ashrafiyya, 1994.
Mohammad. Hajarat Maolana Ashraf Ali Thanvi: jiban o karma.
Malik Brothers, 2003.
Arifi, Abdul Hai and Ahmad Ali Khawaja. Ashraf
Ali Thanawi: Life and Works. Multan: Idara
T‘alifat-e Ashrafiyya, n.d.
Naeem, Fuad S. “A
Traditional Islamic Response to the Rise of Modernism.” Islam,
Fundamentalism, and the Betrayal of Tradition: Essays by
Western Muslim Scholars. Ed. Joseph E.B. Lumbard. Bloomington:
World Wisdom, 2004. 79–120.