Shah Waliullah was born in 1703 AD four years before the death of Aurangzeb. His grandfather, Sheikh Wajihuddin, was an important officer in the army of Shah Jahan who supported Prince Aurangzeb in the war of succession. His father, Shah Abdur Rahim, a sufi and an eminent scholar assisted in the compilation of “Fataawa-i-Alamgiri “—the voluminous code of Islamic law. He, however, refused an invitation to visit the Emperor and devoted his energies to the organization and teaching at `Madrassa Rahimia’—a theological college which he had established and which, later, played an important part in the religious emancipation of Muslim India and became the breeding ground of religious reformers and `Mujahids’ like Shah Abdul Aziz, Syed Ahmad of Bareli, Maulvi Abdul Haiy and Shah Ismail Shaheed. Writing about the teachings of Shah Abdur Rahim and his brother, Maulana Ubaidullah Sindhi observes: `The essence of the teaching of the two brothers was the effort to discover a path which could be traversed together by the Muslim philosophers (the Sufis and the Mutakallims) and the Muslim Jurists (Faqih).’
Shah Waliullah received his early education from his illustrious father, who was his teacher as well as his spiritual guide. Being a precocious child with a retentive memory he committed the Holy Quran to memory at an early age of 7 years. On the death of his father in 1131 AH when he was hardly 17 years old, he started teaching in his father’s `Madrassa-i- Rahimiya’ and carried on the work for 12 years when he left for Arabia for higher studies. He was a brilliant scholar; during fourteen months’ stay in Makkah and Madina, he came into contact with the oustanding teachers of Hejaz. His favourite teacher was Sheikh Abu Tahir bin Ibrahim of Madina, from whom he obtained his Sanad (Degree) in Hadith. The Sheikh was an erudite scholar, possessing encyclopaedic knowledge; Shah Waliullah benefitted much from him too and speaks highly of his piety, independence of judgement and scholarly talents.
During his stay at Makkah, Shah Waliullah had a dream in which the Holy Prophet (sws) commanded him to work for the organization and emancipation of the Muslim community in the subcontinent. He, therefore, returned to Delhi on July 9th, 1732 and started his work in real earnest. His was an uphill task in a period when Muslim India was passing through the most critical phase of its history and its entire social, political, economic and spiritual fabric was torn to pieces. On his arrival in Delhi, he started training pupils in diverse branches of Islamic learning and entrusted them with the missionary work of enlightening people with the true nature of Islam. He embarked upon the task of producing standard works on Islamic learning and, before his death in 1762, completed a large number of outstanding works on Islam.
He rose to be a great scholar of Islamic studies, endowed with saintly qualities. So great was his dedication to work that according to his talented son Shah Abdul Aziz: `…he was rarely ill and once he sat down to work after Ishraq (post-sunrise prayers) he would not change his posture till midday’. He was a real genius, an intellectual giant who set himself to the mission of educating the misguided Muslim masses with the true spirit of Islam. His was the task of the revival of Islam in the subcontinent which had been clouded with mystic philosophy and to bring it out in its pristine glory. He was a humble devotee to this cause, who resisted all temptations of personal glory.
His activities were not confined to spiritual and intellectual spheres only. He lived in troubled times and witnessed during his lifetime about a dozen rulers occupying the throne of Delhi. Endowed with a keen political insight, he observed with deep anguish the breaking up of Muslim power in the subcontinent and wrote to leading political dignitaries like Ahmad Shah Abdali, Nizam ul Mulk and Najibuddaula to stop the rot which had set in the political life of Muslim India. It was on account of his call that Ahmad Shah Abdali appeared on the field of Panipat in 1761 and put an end to the Marhatta dream of dominating the subcontinent.
Shah Waliullah was a prolific writer. It is in the realm of Islamic learning that he made a lasting contribution and within a period of 30 years produced more than 50 works of outstanding merit, both in Arabic and Persian Languages. Some of these are still unsurpassed in the whole domain of Islamic literature. His most valuable service to the cause of Islamic learning was that he codified the vast store of Islamic teachings under separate heads. Both in thought and prediction, his works occupy an outstanding place. As a reformer and as a propounder of theories dealing with socialism, he may be considered as the forerunner of Karl Marx.
His works may be classified into six categories. The first deals with the Holy Quran. It includes his translation of the Holy Book into Persian, the literary languages of the subcontinent of those times. According to him, the object of studying the Holy Book is `to reform human nature and correct the wrong beliefs and injurious actions’. The second category deals with Hadith, in which he has left behind several works including an Arabic and Persian Commentaries on “Mu’atta”, the well-known collection of the traditions of the Holy Prophet (sws) compiled by Imam Malik. He attached great importance to this collection of traditions by Imam Malik, even greater than those of Imam Bukhari and Imam Muslim. He is an outstanding Muhaddith (Traditionist) and links of all modern scholars of Hadith in the subcontinent may be traced to him. Foremost among these modern Traditionalists was his son and successor Shah Abdul Aziz and Syed Murtaza Bilgrami. Shah Waliullah wrote a number of books and pamphlets dealing with Hadith. The third category deals with `Fiqh’ or Islamic Jurisprudence, which includes “Insaaf-fi-bayaan- i-Sabab-il- Ikhtilaaf” which is a brief but a very interesting and informative history of the Islamic Jurisprudence of the last five centuries. The fourth category deals with his works based on mysticism. The fifth category pertains to his works on Muslim philosophy and Ilm-i-Kalam. He also wrote a pamphlet on the principles of Ijtihad (independent interpretation) and Taqlid (conformity) . In his “Principles of Ijtihaad” he clarifies whether it is obligatory for a Muslim to adhere to one of the four recognized schools of Islamic Jurisprudence or whether he can exercise his own judgement. In the opinion of Shah Waliullah, a layman should rigidly follow his own Imam but a person well versed in Islamic law can exercise his own judgement which should be in conformity with the practice of the Holy Prophet (sws). But the most outstanding of all his works “Hujjat-Ullah- il-Baalighah” which deals with such aspects of Islam that are common among all Muslim countries. In its introduction he observes: `Some people think that there is no usefulness involved in the injunctions of Islamic law and that in actions and rewards as prescribed by God there is no beneficial purpose. They think that the commandments of Islamic law are similar to a master ordering his servant to lift a stone or touch a tree in order to test his obedience and that in this there is no purpose except to impose a test so that if the servant obeys, he is rewarded, and if he disobeys, he is punished. This view is completely incorrect. The traditions of the Holy Prophet (sws) and consensus of opinion of those ages, contradict this view.’ The sixth category deals with his works on the Shia-Sunni problem which had become somewhat acute in those days. His writings on this subject have done a great deal in simplifying this problem. His theories pertaining to economics and socialism are of revolutionary nature and he may be considered as the precurser of Karl Marx. Writing about his works in the History of the Freedom Movement, Sheikh Muhammad Ikram states: `Shah Waliullah wrote learned works and initiated powerful and beneficial movements, but perhaps no less important are the invisible qualities of approach and outlook, which he bequeathed to Muslim religious thought in the Indo-Pakistan subcontinent. His work is characterized by knowledge, insight, moderation and tolerance, but the quality on which he laid the greatest emphasis, in theory and in practice, was Adl or Adalat (justice, fairness). His works and views bear ample testimony to the ways he observed this principle in practice and he lost few opportunities of emphasizing in theory its role in maintaining the social fabric.’
Shah Waliullah introduced several reforms in religious and economic spheres. He was first to translate the Holy Quran in a popular language, a practice which was later usefully followed by others. His own son, Shah Abdul Aziz, translated the Holy Book into Urdu, the language of Muslim masses in India. There had been a conflict between orthodox Islam revived under Mujaddid-Alif- Sani, championed by Aurangzeb and heterodoxy introduced by Akbar and championed by Dara Shikoh. The reign of orthodox Aurangzeb had created aversion to Sufism and had led to the advent of extreme puritanism. Shah Waliullah struck a mean between the two extremes and retained the virtues of both.
He was born in an atmosphere deeply imbued with the spirit of Sufism. His father was a well-known Sufi. In his early age, he came under the influence of Ibni Taimiya, a great religious reformer. During his stay in Hejaz, he came into contact with scholars who were influenced by Wahabism. This provided a check to his blind following of Sufism. But like Wahabis, he did not totally discard Sufism. He was aware of the services rendered by Sufis in popularizing Islam in the subcontinent and the spiritual self developed by the truly Islamic form of Sufism. But he was highly critical of the decadent and traditional form of Sufism which borders on the verge of asceticism and is, therefore, averse to true Islam. In his Wasiyat Nama (Will) he observes: `And the next advice (Wasiyat) is that one should not entrust one’s affairs to and become a disciple of the Saints of this period who are given to a number of irregularities’ . Shah Saheb had urged for the reform and discipline of Sufism and not its rejection. He wrote several pamphlets on this subject in which he analyzed the evils and virtues of Sufism. `With these books’, writes Maulana Manazir Ahsan, `the disputes between the Sufis and the Ulema, provided one is just, come to an end. By giving an Islamic interpretation to the Sufi doctrines, Shah Waliullah removed the distaste which the Ulema had felt for Sufism and the Sufis’. Shah Waliullah has, therefore, not only bridged the gulf between the Sufis and the Ulema but also harmonized the differences prevalent among different sects of Sufis. His principles on the subject were put into practice in the great theological college of Deoband, which had among its patrons such well-known Sufis like Maulana Rashid Ahmad Gangohi and Maulana Ashraf Ali Thanvi.
Shah Waliullah set upon the mission of reforming the social and political order of his day. Being a realist, he diagnosed the ills which had entered into the body politic of Muslim society and suggested remedies. He criticised the un-Islamic customs which had crept into Muslim society due to its contact with Hinduism. He was particularly against excessive extravagance in marriages, festivals and other ceremonies. He advocated the remarriage of widows. He carefully analyzed the factors responsible for the economic degeneration of the Muslim society during his time and proposed radical changes in the economy of the Muslim society. He advocated wider distribution of wealth on socialistic lines and in this way became the forerunner of Karl Marx. In an illuminating chapter of “Hujjat-Ullah- il-Baaligah” , he outlined the evils of capitalism which brought about the fall of the Roman and Sassanid Empires. He is highly critical of the economic exploitation of the poor, which, in the past, had brought about many revolutions and is the root cause of all troubles and unrest in the world. He even criticised the Mughal rulers and nobility for their indolence and luxury. Addressing the rapacious nobility of his time he observes: `Oh Amirs! Do you not fear God? (How is it that) you have so completely thrown yourself into the pursuit of momentary pleasures and have neglected those people who have been committed to your care! The result is that the strong are devouring the (weak) people….. All your mental faculties are directed towards providing yourself with sumptuous food and soft-skinned women for enjoyment and pleasure. You do not turn your attention to anything except good clothes and magnificent palaces.’
Shah Waliullah was of the opinion that intellectual revolution should precede political change. He did not contemplate a change in the political or social set-up through a bloody revolution. He wanted to bring a revolutionary change in the society through peaceful means. In his well-known book, “Izaalat-ul- Khifaa”, he discusses the ideology of the political revolution which he envisaged.
No scholar of Mediaeval India had understood the various aspects of civics as had been done by Shah Waliullah. He considered `self-consciousness ‘ as a prerequisite of `political consciousness’ . He has dealt in detail the factors which contribute towards the growth of civil consciousness in his immortal work “Hujjat-Ullah- il-Baaligah” .
Shah Waliullah was, perhaps, the only Muslim scholar of Mediaeval India who realized the importance of economics in a social and political set-up. He advocated the maintenance of economic equilibrium in the society and strongly criticized the accumulation of wealth which leads to all sorts of evils in the world. He had visualized a social order based on economic equality, fraternity and brotherhood which are the principles governing Islamic socialist practices during the time of the pious Caliphs.
Born in an age of decadence and chaos, Shah Waliullah strove for world of peace and prosperity. He has made a singular contribution to the socio-economic thought of Mediaeval India and visualized a Muslim society in which the individual enjoyed the fullest freedom, consistent with the maximum good of all. In such an ideal Islamic state, the ruler was to be governed by the Holy Quran and the Sunnah. No economic exploitation was to be tolerated in such a state and the individual was free to earn his living by fair means.
His seminary, ‘Madrassa-i-Rahimiya’ became the centre of Islamic Renaissance in the subcontinent, where scholars flocked from the four corners of the country and after being trained, became the torch bearers of freedom movement in the subcontinent. The “Madrassa” in fact, had become the nucleus of the revolutionary movement for the reconstruction of religious thought in Islam. It produced many zealous workers who carried on their preacher’s mission with a missionary zeal. Among these were Maulana Muhammad Ashiq of Phulat, Maulana Norrullah of Budhana, Maulana Amin Kashmiri, Shah Abu Saeed of Rai Bareli and his own son, Shah Abdul Aziz who was initiated into the religious and political philosophy of his father.
Shah Waliullah played a vital role in the Indian politics of his times. He was greatly instrumental in forging a united Muslim front against the rising Marhatta power which was threatening the last vestige of the Muslim power in northern India. It was he who wrote to Najibuddaula, and Nizam-ul-Malik and finally invited Ahmad Shah Abdali who inflicted a crushing defeat on the Marhattas in the third battle of Panipat in 1761. His letter to Ahmad Shah Abdali inviting him to take up arms against the menacing Marhatta power in India is one of the most important historical documents of the 18th century. It surveys the political situation in the subcontinent and the dangers which Muslim India faced from different quarters. He had choosen the most vivid, capable and disciplined Muslim leaders of his time for combating the Marhattas. Among these were Najibuddaula, the leader of the redoubtable Rohilas and Ahmad Shah Abdali, the ruler of the brave Pathans. His efforts towards forging a united front against the Marhattas were successful and the defeat of Marhattas in the third battle of Panipat in 1761 provided a turning point in the history of the subcontinent.
Shah Waliullah visualized an ideal state of the days of the Pious Caliphs and strove to it. Analyzing his political thought, Iqbal states:
“The Prophetic method of teaching, according to Shah Waliullah is that, generally speaking, the law revealed by a prophet takes especial notice of the habits, ways and peculiarities of the people to whom he is specifically sent. The Prophet who aims at all-embracing principles, however, can neither reveal different peoples nor leave them to work out their own rules of conduct. His method is to train one particular people and to use it as a nucleus for the build up of a universal `Shariah’. In doing so, he accentuates the principles underlying the social life of all mankind and applies them to concrete cases in the light of the specific habits of the people immediately before him.” (“Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam”)
The movement of political as well as spiritual regeneration of Muslim India did not die with Shah Waliullah. His talented son, Shah Abdul Aziz, and his worthy disciples and successors, strove for the realization of his mission. The torch of Islamic revival kindled by Shah Waliullah was kept aloft by his worthy successors. The echo of the third battle of Panipat was heard in the battle of Balakot. Both form the landmarks of the same struggle.
Shah Waliullah possessed a many-sided and versatile personality. His real greatness lies in the cumulative effect produced by his writings, by the contribution of persons trained by him and by the achievements of the school of thought founded by him. In religious matters, he struck a mean between extremes; in social affairs he strove to introduce in the Muslim society the simplicity and purity of early Islam; in the sphere of economics he advocated the revolutionary Islamic socialism and in the political field he forged a united Muslim front against the non-Muslim forces which were threatening to storm Muslim India.