Last year, the author of the now famous Ulama in Contemporary Islam: Custodians of Change, Muhammad Qasim Zaman, published a biography of the great savant and saint Hakim al-Ummah Mawlana Ashraf ‘Ali al-Thanawi (may Allah shower him with His mercy). The book is part of The Makers of the Muslim World Series.
I recently obtained a pdf version of the book and have only begun to read it. In sha Allah, if I ever get ahold of hard copy version of the book, I hope to read it thoroughly and write a review.
Ashraf `Ali Thanawi (1863-1943) was one of the most prominent religious scholars in Islamic history. Author of over a thousand books on different aspects of Islam, his work sought to defend the Islamic scholarly tradition and to articulate its authority in an age of momentous religious and political change. In this authoritative biography, Muhammad Qasim Zaman offers a comprehensive and highly accessible account of Thanawi’s multifaceted career and thought, whilst also providing a valuable introduction to Islam in modern South Asia.
5 thoughts on “Ashraf ‘Ali Thanawi: Islam in Modern South Asia by Muhammad Qasim Zaman”
I don’t know how accurate this book is as it is the first biography of Ashraf Ali Thanwi that I have read. However this work by Muhammad Qasim Zaman depicts Thanwi in a way that would not bide well with any Deobandi–or any Muslim for that matter. Thanwi, according to Zaman, for instance, was extremely contemptuous of the poor; Zaman implies that Thanwi’s fame as a Sufi master had gotten to his head and made him arrogant, so he required filling out an application for anyone who wanted just to meet him. Anyone who attempted to talk to him without permission was driven away and beaten (page 26).
In addition, the book concentrates more on Thanwi’s political life than as a jurist and hadith scholar (the book touches on his Sufism, but mainly with respect to its political aspects). I suppose that is not a flaw in the book, though, as the book is part of a larger series on the “Makers of the Muslim World,” so focusing on the political life of Thanwi would be inevitable. Nevertheless, a book in English that depicts Thanwi the scholar is much needed.
Does Zaman really imply that Mawlana Thanawi became “arrogant” due to his rank as a Sufi master? I could not discern such a notion from the specific passage in question. Rather, when read as a whole, what seems more evident is that Mawlana Thanawi was simply a very strict teacher with strict rules, something he thought was necessary due to the lacklusterness of the times he lived in.
At the same time, Zaman references his words to the Ifadat al-Yawmiyyah, so it would be worth taking a look at it. Sufi scholars of the past have been known to be very demanding of their students, so Mawlana Thanawi’s severity should come as no surprise.
The wording of the test implies (in my humble opinion) that Thanawi’s practices were out of arrogance. It is true that Sufi masters have to be strict with their students, but Thanawi was hardly strict with his own students: “Humiliating punishments were sometimes imposed on students at the adjacent madrasa; and visitors were often admitted on the condition that they did not try to address the master at all but rather sat in silence throughout their stay.”
What is the point of this harshness? Certainly not to instruct, as mere visitors would not appreciate the strictness. It takes many years of traversing the Sufi path to get to that level.
In addition, what was the purpose of requiring visitors to fill out an application form except to accentuate Thanawi’s superior status. In addition, Zaman says rather clearly that Thanawi was “contemptuous” of the surrounding peasant population. That could only stem from a sense of superiority.
It is true that immediately following that immediately following this, Zaman imputes some of Thanawi’s strictness to his reformist zeal; but even then, Zaman states that Thanawi was disdainful of commonfolk; and resentful, as it was only their money that financed his sufi lodge.
Of course, it remains for someone with more knowledge than me to explain this work. As I mentioned before, this is the first biography I have read of Thanawi, so I don’t have a reference point to judge Zaman’s work against.
As for the reference Ifadat al-Yawmiyyah, is it a biased work? Why is it significant with respect to this issue?
It is quite easy for a person unfamiliar with the method of spiritual training employed by Hakim al-Ummat to misconstrue his style as contemptuous.
I remember having a difficult time adjusting to Eastern styles of academic training and the culture of the classroom during my initial weeks of study abroad. I probably would have misunderstood much of the teaching style that was so important to my tarbiyah had I not sought to look beyond my own cultural assumptions and opened my mind to the possibility of greater benefit.
It is also important to remember that Hakim al-Ummah’s method of spiritual training was particularly potent for those whom he was addressing. Had Hakim al-Ummah been dealing with people such as ourselves or even Dr. Zaman, I would imagine that his approach would have been slightly different and, by virtue of his noble character and immense wisdom, appropriate for our specific situation. I have personally seen this in the approach of many scholars today. When they address students, their approach is strikingly different than when approaching the average musalli in the masjid. Such an approach is deeply rooted in experience and wisdom and should not be construed as harshness or arrogance.
After all, حسنات الأبرار سيئات المقربين.
I believe one must always take a historian’s words with a grain of salt when the historian does not share the same cultural understanding as the person or persons he writes about. Dr. Zaman’s book is full of benefit, but as with any book is limited by the scope of knowledge and understanding of its author.
خذ ما صفى ودع ما كدر
I think Shaykh Bilal’s succinct response answers the issues with M.Q. Zaman’s statements regarding Allamah Ashraf `Ali at-Thanwi (ra).
Shaykh Bilal’s last paragraph is also very important to note, and should be kept in mind when reading any writing on history/bios/etc.