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Mawdūdī, Sayyid Abū al-Aʿlā

Seyyed Vali Reza Nasr
The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World What is This? Provides comprehensive scholarly coverage of the full geographical and historical extent of Islam

Mawdūdī, Sayyid Abū al-Aʿlā

Sayyid Abū al-Aʿlā Mawdūdī (1903–1979) (also rendered from Urdu as Abuʿl-Aʿla Maudūdī), Islamic ideologue and politician, was one of the most influential and prolific of contemporary Muslim thinkers. His interpretation of Islam has contributed greatly to Islamic revivalist thought and has influenced Muslim thinkers and activists from Morocco to Indonesia. His impact is evident in the exegesis of Sayyid Quṭb of Egypt, as well as in the ideas and actions of Algerian, Iranian, Malaysian, and Sudanese revivalist activists. Mawdūdī's influence has been greatest in South Asia where his ideas took shape. Jamāʿat-i Islāmī (the Islamic Party), the organization that has embodied his ideology for five decades, has played a significant role in the history and politics of Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, and the South Asian communities of the Persian Gulf states, Great Britain, and North America.

Early Life.

Mawdūdī was born in Aurangabad, Deccan (now Maharashtra), on September 25, 1903 into a notable family of Delhi who traced their lineage to the great Chishtī Ṣūfī saints who had played a prominent role in the conversion of India to Islam. The Mawdūdīs had been close to the Mughal court, especially during the reign of the last ruler of that dynasty, Bahādur Shāh Ẓafar. The family had suffered greatly during the sack of Delhi by the British in 1858 and had witnessed a reversal in its fortunes following the suppression of Muslim power in the Indian subcontinent. It had, however, continued to identify with the glories of Muslim history in India and was not reconciled to British rule over the domain of the Mughals. Mawdūdī's mother was also from a notable family of Delhi who had settled in the Deccan and served generations of nizāms (hereditary rulers of Hyderabad). The Indo-Islamic cultural roots of the family, its identification with the glorious heritage of Muslim rule over India, its aristocratic pretensions, and its disdain for British rule were to play a central role in shaping Mawdūdī's worldview in later years.

Mawdūdī's father, Sayyid Aḥmad Ḥasan, was among the first to attend the Muslim Anglo-Oriental College at Aligarh and to embark on Sayyid Aḥmad Khān's experiment with Islamic modernism. His stint at Aligarh, however, did not last long, because he left the school to complete his education in law in Allahabad. After completing his studies, Aḥmad Ḥasan settled in the Deccan, first in Hyderabad and later in Aurangabad. There he was initiated into Sufism and for a time abandoned his career to devote himself to worship at the shrine of Niẓāmuddīn Auliyāʿ in Delhi. Aḥmad Ḥasan's puritanical streak and love of Sufism created a strongly religious and ascetic environment in which his children were nurtured. Aḥmad Ḥasan, moreover, took great pains to rear his children in the Muslim sharīf (notable) culture and to educate them classically, intentionally excluding English from their curriculum. They were educated at home in Arabic, Urdu, and religious texts. Mawdūdī's mastery of Arabic was such that at the age of fourteen he translated the Egyptian thinker Qāsim Amīn's work Al-marʿah al-jadīdah (The New Woman) from Arabic into Urdu.

At the age of eleven the young Mawdūdī was enrolled at the Madrasah-i Fauqaniyah in Aurangabad, where he encountered modern education for the first time. He was compelled to abandon his formal education at the age of sixteen because of his father's illness and death, but he remained acutely interested in writing and politics. His interests were then secular and focused solely on the issue of nationalism. In 1918 and 1919 he wrote essays in praise of Hindu Congress leaders, notably Gandhi and Madan Muhan Malaviya. In 1918 he joined his brother Abulkhair in Bijnor to begin a career in journalism. Soon after that the brothers moved to Delhi, where Mawdūdī was exposed to the variety of intellectual currents in the Muslim community. He became acquainted with modernist writings as well as with the activities of the independence movement. In 1919 he moved to Jabalpur to work for the pro-Congress weekly Taj. There he became fully active in the Khilāfat movement and in mobilizing Muslims in support of the Congress Party. His passionate articles eventually led to the closure of the weekly by the authorities.

Mawdūdī then returned to Delhi, where he became acquainted with such important Khilāfat activists as Muḥammad ʿAlī, with whom Mawdūdī briefly cooperated. He continued to show interest in the independence movement, albeit increasingly from a Muslim standpoint. For instance, he briefly joined the Tahrik-i Hijrat protest movement, which encouraged Muslims to emigrate from British India (dār al-ḥarb, abode of war) to Muslim-ruled (dār al-Islām, abode of Islam) Afghanistan. In 1921 Mawdūdī became acquainted with the senior leaders of the Jamʿīyatul ʿUlamāʿ-i Hind, Mawlānās Muftī Kifāyatullāh and Aḥmad Saʿīd. The eminent ʿulamāʿ recognized Mawdūdī's talents and invited him to edit the Jamʿīyat's official newspaper, Muslim, and later its successor al-Jamīʿat. Mawdūdī remained in the service of the Jamʿīyat until 1924. There he developed a more acute awareness of Muslim political consciousness and became more actively involved in the affairs of his faith. He began to write on the plight of Muslims in India, the predicament of the Turks in the face of European imperialism, and the glories of Muslim rule in India. His tone was communalist and political; revivalism was not yet a central focus of his writings. (See also JAMʿīYATUL ʿULAMāʿ-I HIND and KHILāFAT MOVEMENT).

These years were also a period of learning and intellectual growth for Mawdūdī. He learned English and became acquainted with Western works. His association with the Jamʿīyat also encouraged him to acquire a formal religious education. He studied Arabic and commenced the dars-i niẓāmī (syllabus of education of ʿulamāʿ in India), first with the renowned ʿAbdussalām Niyāzī and later at Delhi's Fatihpuri Madrasah. In 1926 he received his certificate in religious training (ijāzah), thus becoming a Deobandī ʿalim. Interestingly, Mawdūdī never acknowledged his status as one of the ʿulamāʿ, and his education in the Deobandī tradition did not come to light until after his death.


The collapse of the Khilāfat movement in 1924 was a turning point in Mawdūdī's life. He lost faith in nationalism, which he believed had led the Turks and Egyptians to undermine Muslim unity, and came to suspect the Congress Party of manipulating nationalist sentiments to serve Hindu interests. His views became openly communalist, revealing an opprobrium for the nationalist movement and its Muslim allies. At this time he found himself at odds with the Jamʿīyat and decided to part ways with his Deobandī mentors, who had chosen to support the Congress Party in the interests of ridding India of British rule.

No less opposed to British rule, Mawdūdī advocated an Islamic anti-imperialist platform that asserted opposition to colonialism together with safeguarding Muslim interests. The communalist rhetoric, articulated in terms of religious symbolism, gave way to revivalist discourse when taken to its logical conclusion. This course of events, moreover, soon imbued Mawdūdī with a sense of mission, permitting him to express his views as a discrete religious and political platform. In 1925 a young Muslim activist assassinated the Hindu revivalist leader Swami Shradhanand. The swami, who had advocated reconverting low-caste converts to Islam back to Hinduism, had publicly slighted Muslim beliefs. The assassination led to widespread criticism of Islam as a religion of violence by the Indian press. Angered by this response and summoned to action by Muḥammad ʿAlī's sermon at Delhi's Jamiʿ Mosque encouraging Muslims to defend their faith, Mawdūdī took it upon himself to clarify to critics Islam's position on the use of violence. The result was his famous treatise on war and peace, violence, and jihād in Islam, Al-jihād fī al-Islām (Jihad in Islam). This book was the only systematic explanation of the Muslim position on jihād in response to criticism by the press, and it remains one of the most articulate expositions of this theme by a revivalist thinker; it received accolades from the Muslim community and confirmed Mawdūdī's place among the Muslim literati.

Mawdūdī became convinced that his vocation lay in leading his community to political and religious salvation. The direction which this endeavor was to take was not, however, entirely clear. In 1928 Mawdūdī moved to Hyderabad and immersed himself in writing. He completed a number of translation projects, historical accounts of Hyderabad, and religious texts at the behest of the nizām's government, the most important of which was his seminal introduction to Islam, Risālah-yi dīnīyāt (1954, translated as Towards Understanding Islam, 1980). It was here that he first grew a beard, adopted Indo-Muslim attire, and underwent a conversion experience which was religious in content but motivated by his understanding of political imperatives. The political situation in Hyderabad, the last remnant of Muslim rule in India, was precarious at the time. The majority Hindu population had begun to assert itself, and the power of the nizām was on the wane. Mawdūdī was not unaffected by what he witnessed in his birthplace. He became convinced that the decline of Muslim power stemmed from the corruption and pollution of Islam, the centuries of dross that had obscured the faith's true teachings. Conversely, the salvation of Muslim culture lay in the restitution of Islamic institutions and practices, once the culture was cleansed of the unsavory influences that had sapped its power. He therefore encouraged the nizām's government to reform Hyderabad's Islamic institutions and to promote the true teachings of the faith. The government's subsequent inaction disheartened Mawdūdī and led him to lose trust in the existing Muslim political structures and to look instead for a new, all-inclusive sociopolitical solution.

Mawdūdī's revivalist position was in fact radical communalism. It asserted Muslim rights, proposed a program for promoting and safeguarding them, and demanded the severance of all cultural, social, and political ties with Hindus in the interest of purifying Islam. He went so far as to advocate a separate cultural homeland for Indian Muslims.

Darul-Islam and Jamāʿat-i Islāmī.

In 1932 Mawdūdī purchased the journal Tarjumān al-Qurʿān (Interpreter of the Qurʿān), which became the forum for his views. The rapid changes that characterized the passing of the Raj, however, convinced Mawdūdī that the pen alone was unlikely to affect the course of events significantly. He thus became interested in an organizational expression of his ideas. In 1938 he agreed to head Darul-Islam, a religious education project conceived by Muhammad Iqbal at Pathankut, a hamlet in Punjab. At Darul-Islam Mawdūdī devised a model Islamic community, which he hoped would spearhead the reform of Islam in India. Meanwhile he remained intensely interested in politics. He became embroiled in the struggle between the Pakistan Movement and Muslims of the Congress Party, always maintaining his independence of thought from the two positions. He lambasted first the Muslim supporters of the Congress, many of whom were his mentors in the Jamʿīyatul ʿUlamāʿ-i Hind, for betraying the Muslim cause, and then turned his attention to the Muslim League, which he chastised for its secularist communalism. As a result of Mawdūdī's activism, the project acquired an increasingly political tone, leading him to leave Pathankut for more direct political activity in Lahore. There he taught at the Islāmīyah College and joined in debates over the future of the Muslim community. It was at this time that the idea of an organizational expression for his ideas, combining a model community and a political party, found shape in Mawdūdī's thought and works. In August 1941, Mawdūdī, with a number of young ʿulamāʿ and Muslim literati, formed the Jamāʿat-i Islāmī (Islamic Party). The party soon moved its headquarters to Pathankut, where Mawdūdī and his cohorts articulated the party's ideology and plan of action. The Jamāʿat began to organize across India, but it did not evolve rapidly enough to have an impact on developments in the Muslim community there.

After Partition.

When India was partitioned, Mawdūdī divided the Jamāʿat into independent Indian and Pakistani units. He moved to Lahore to assume leadership of the Jamāʿat-i Islāmī of Pakistan. The communalist agenda was replaced by the campaign to establish an Islamic state. During Pakistan's early years Mawdūdī did much to mobilize public opinion for the cause of Islam, pushing the ʿulamāʿ to demand an Islamic constitution. He was soon identified as an enemy of the state and was accused of opposing Pakistan and of being a tool of India and a subversive element. Between 1948 and 1950 he was imprisoned for refusing to lend religious legitimacy to the government's military campaign in Kashmir. In 1954 he was again imprisoned, and this time sentenced to death, for his role in instigating the disturbances against the Aḥmadīyah in Punjab in 1953–1954. His sentence was later commuted, and he was released from prison in 1955. He was incarcerated again in 1964 and 1967 for challenging the regime of Ayub Khan.

In 1969 Mawdūdī instructed the Jamāʿat to launch a national anti-left campaign to forestall the Awami League's effort to gain independence for East Pakistan and to keep the Pakistan Peoples’ Party out of power. The Jamāʿat failed on both counts; it lost the elections of 1970 and was overshadowed by the left in the country's first open elections. Taking stock of the defeat, after serving thirty years at the helm of the Jamāʿat, Mawdūdī stepped down as the president (amīr) of the party. Although he continued to exercise much power in the Jamāʿat as well as in national politics in subsequent years, most of his time was dedicated to writing. Mawdūdī died in Buffalo, New York, on September 22, 1979. His funeral later in that month in Lahore drew a crowd of more than one million. He was buried in his house in the Ichhrah neighborhood of Lahore.

Throughout his years of political activity Mawdūdī produced many articles, pamphlets, and books. His work has not only made him the foremost revivalist thinker of his time, but has also confirmed his place as an important force in traditional religious scholarship. His Qurʿānic translation and commentary, Tafhīm al-Qurʿān (The Meaning of the Qurʿān), begun in 1942 and completed in 1972, is one of the most widely read Qurʿānic commentaries in Urdu today. Although written in a popular style and with a revivalist agenda, it has found a place in the classical Islamic scholarship of the subcontinent.


In his numerous works Mawdūdī elaborated his views on religion, society, economy, and politics. They constitute an interpretive reading of Islam that sought to mobilize faith for the purpose of political action. His ideological perspective, one of the most prolific and systematic articulations of the revivalist position, has been influential in the unfolding of revivalism across the Muslim world. The contours of Islam's discourse with socialism and capitalism were first defined by him, as was much of the terminology associated with Islamic revivalism, including “Islamic revolution,” “Islamic state,” and “Islamic ideology.”

Mawdūdī's reading of Islam began with a radical exegesis. His vision was chiliastic (millenarian) and dialectic in that it saw the battle between Islam and un-Islam (kufr)—both the West and the Hindu culture of India—as the central force in the historical progression of Muslim societies. This struggle, argued Mawdūdī, would culminate in an Islamic state, which would in turn initiate broad reforms in society, thereby erecting a utopian Islamic order. With this agenda, Mawdūdī advocated a view of Islam that mobilized the faith according to the needs of political action. He rationalized Islam into a stringent belief system, predicated upon absolute obedience to the will of God and amounting to a command structure that aimed to transform society and politics. By reinterpreting such key concepts as divinity (ilāh), god⁄lord (rabb), worship (ʿibādah), and religion (dīn), he recast the meaning of the Muslim faith so that social action became the logical end of religious piety, and religion itself became the vehicle of social action. Despite the radicalism of his vision and his polemic on Islamic revolution, Mawdūdī's approach to politics throughout his career remained irenic. He continued to believe that social change would not result from mobilizing the masses to topple the existing order, but from taking political power and effecting broad reforms from the top down. In Mawdūdī's conception, Islamic revolution was to unfold within the existing state structures rather than after their destruction. He disparaged the use of violence in promoting the cause of Islam and defined the ideal Islamic state as a “theodemocracy” or a “democratic caliphate.” Moreover, education rather than revolutionary action was the keystone of his approach to Islamic activism. In this regard Mawdūdī's position, as manifested in Jamāʿat's politics, stands in contrast to Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's example; it has provided Islamic revivalism with an alternate paradigm for social action that may prevail among revivalists in the years to come.

See also JAMāʿAT-I ISLāMī and PAKISTAN.


  • ʿAbd, Chaudhrī ʿAbdurraḥmān. Mufakkir-i Islām: Sayyid Abūlaʿlā Maudūdī (Thinker of Islam: Mawlānā Sayyid Abū al-Aʿlā Mawdūdī). Lahore, 1971. Official account of Mawdūdī's life and thought.
  • Abūlāfāq. Sayyid Abūlaʿlā Maudūdī: Savāniḥ, Afkār, Taḥrīk (Sayyid Abū al-Aʿlā Mawdūdī: Biography, Thought, Movement). Lahore, 1971. Official rendition of Mawdūdī's life story.
  • Adams, Charles J.“The Ideology of Mawlana Mawdūdī.” In South Asian Politics and Religion, edited by Donald E. Smith, pp. 371–397. Princeton, 1966.
  • Adams, Charles J.“Mawdūdī and the Islamic State.” In Voices of Resurgent Islam, edited by John L. Esposito, pp. 99–133. New York, 1983.
  • Ahmad, Aziz. “Mawdudi and Orthodox Fundamentalism of Pakistan.”Middle East Journal21, no. 3 (Summer 1967): 369–380. Critical overview of the Jamāʿat's ideology and its impact on Pakistan.
  • “ʿAllāma Mawdūdī and Contemporary Pakistan.” Special issue of The Muslim World, 93, nos. 3–4 (July 2003): 351–561.
  • Gilani, Sayyid Asad. Maududi: Thought and Movement. Lahore, 1984. Official account of Mawdūdī's life.
  • Hasan, Masudul. Sayyid Abul Aʿala Maududi and His Thought. 2 vols. Lahore, 1984. Exhaustive account of Mawdūdī's life and politics.
  • Mawdūdī, Sayyid Abū al-Aʿlā. Islām kā naẓarīyah-yi siyāsī (Islam's Political Views). Delhi, 1967. Summary of Mawdūdī's views on Islam's role in politics.
  • Mawdūdī, Sayyid Abū al-Aʿlā. Islāmī riyāsat (Islamic State). Lahore, 1969.
  • Mawdūdī, Sayyid Abū al-Aʿlā. Jamāʿat-i Islāmī kī untīs sāl (Twenty-Nine Years of Jamāʿat-i Islāmī). Lahore, 1970.
  • Mawdūdī, Sayyid Abū al-Aʿlā. Al-jihād fī al-Islām (Jihād in Islam). Reprint, Lahore, 1986.
  • Mawdūdī, Sayyid Abū al-Aʿlā. “Khud nivisht” (Autobiography). In Maulānā Maudūdī: Apnī aur dūsro? ki naẓar men- (Mawdūdī in His Own and Others’ Views), edited by M. Yusuf Buhtah, pp. 23–39. Lahore, 1984. Mawdūdī's autobiography, covering the early part of his life.
  • Mawdūdī, Sayyid Abū al-Aʿlā. Musalmān aur maujūdah siyāsī kashmakash (Muslims and the Current Political Struggle). 3 vols.Lahore, 1938–1940. Mawdūdī's famous examination of the problems before Indian Muslims on the eve of partition.
  • Mawdūdī, Sayyid Abū al-Aʿlā. Risālah-yi dīnīyāt (Treatise on Religion). Hyderabad, 1932. Best representation of Mawdūdī's views on faith in Islam.
  • Mawdūdī, Sayyid Abū al-Aʿlā. Taḥrīk-i Islāmī kā āyandah lāʿiḥah-yi ʿamal (Islamic Movement's Future Program of Action). Lahore, 1986. Outlines the objectives and duties of an Islamic movement.
  • Mawdūdī, Sayyid Abū al-Aʿlā. Taḥrīk-i Islāmī kī akhlāqī bunyāden (The Basic Ethical Principles of the Islamic Movement). Lahore, 1968. Outlines Islamic ethics with a view to placing political activity within the context of Muslim religious practice.
  • Mawdūdī, Sayyid Abū al-Aʿlā. Tajdīd va iḥyāʿ-i dīn (Renewal and Revival of Religion). Lahore, 1952. Mawdūdī's celebrated argument for the revival of Islam.
  • Mawdūdī, Sayyid Abū al-Aʿlā. Tanqīḥāt (Inquiries). 22d ed.Lahore, 1989. Series of responses to perceived problems confronting Muslims.
  • Mawdūdī, Sayyid Abū al-Aʿlā. Towards Understanding the Qurʿān (Tafhīm al-Qurʿān). Trans. and ed. Zafar Ishaq Ansari. 7 vols.Leicester, U.K., 1988–.
  • Mawdūdī, Sayyid Abū al-Aʿlā. Vaѕāʿiq-i Maudūdī (Mawdūdī's Documents). Lahore, 1986. Useful collection of various documents on the Jamāʿat's history and Mawdūdī's thought.
  • Nasr, Seyyed Vali Reza. Mawdudi and the Making of Islamic Revivalism. New York, 1996.
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