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hakim al-ummat mujaddide millat
Mawlana Ashraf Ali Thanawi (1863-1943 CE)
رحمة الله عليه

A Brief 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 Seminary
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 work entitled 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].

Embodiment of 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 Al-Ghadab (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 131).

Politics and Mawlana Thanawi
Mawlana Thanawi was not a politician, Mufti Muhammad Taqi Uthmani explains, “and neither were politics his subject of interest” (Islam aur Siyasat 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.

Further Readings


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.

 'Uthmani, Mufti 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.


Abdullah, Mohammad. Hajarat Maolana Ashraf Ali Thanvi: jiban o karma. Calcutta:
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.