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Nadwī, Abū al-Ḥasan

Jawad Anwar Qureshi
The Oxford Encyclopedia of Islam and Politics What is This? Provides in-depth coverage of the political dimensions of Islam and the Muslim world through thematic examination of the major topic areas of political science as they relate to the Muslim world.

Nadwī, Abū al-Ḥasan

Sayyid Abūl Ḥasan ʿAlīal-Ḥasan al-Nadwī (1914–1999) was a transnational Indian ʿālim, author, and educator. ʿAlī Miyān, as he is known affectionately by his South Asian admirers, was born in 1914 in the district of Rae Bareli, in Uttar Pradesh, India. His father, ʿAbd al-Ḥayy al-Ḥasanī (d. 1923), was a noted religious scholar and author of a prominent Arabic biographical dictionary on Indian Muslims (Nuzhat al-khawāṭir wa-bahjat al-masāmiʿ wa-al-nawāẓir) and two works on Islam in India (al-Thaqāfah al-islāmīyah fī al-Hind and Al-Hind fī al-ʿahd al-islāmī). Al-Nadwī's family was descended from the nineteenth-century revivalist Sayyid Aḥmad al-Shahīd (d. 1831).

During Nadwī's childhood his father died, leaving his mother and older brother to oversee his education, and he was enrolled in Lucknow's Darul Uloom Nadwatul Ulama (hence his moniker “Nadwī”). He also studied Urdu literature at Lucknow University and supplemented his religious and literary studies by studying English for three years. He furthered his religious training at Darul Uloom Deoband, studying ḥadīth, Qurʾānic studies, and fiqh.

In 1934, Nadwī was appointed lecturer at Darul Uloom Nadwatul Ulama and taught Qurʾānic exegesis, ḥadīth, Arabic literature, history, and logic. As a faculty member, he founded several journals in both Urdu and Arabic and was appointed to various posts in the college, the most important being director of education in 1954 and general secretary of the college in 1961, succeeding his brother. He held the latter position for the remainder of his life.

In addition to his post at Nadwa, he was president of the Dīnī Taʿlīmī Council (Uttar Pradesh) and a member of several Muslim organizations, including the standing committee of Dār al-Muṣannafīn (Azamgarh), Darul Uloom Deoband's Majlis-i Shūrā, and the board of directors of al-Rābiṭah al-Adab al-Islāmi al-ʿĀlamī (World Committee for Islamic Literature) in Jordan. He had strong ties with several Saudi institutes, including the World Muslim League, and served on the standing committee of Medina University. He was also a visiting professor in Medina, Damascus, and Marrakech. He received numerous awards, including the King Faisal Prize for Islamic Services in 1980. Nadwī was one of the trustees of the Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies, when it was established in 1983.

Nadwī's religious orientation reflected that of his alma mater. As one of the many Muslim educational institutions formed after the 1857 Sepoy Mutiny, Nadwatul Ulama sought to preserve and shape Indian Muslim culture and identity. Nadwa emphasized Arabic as a living language and stressed the strengthening of ties with the Arab world. In religious learning, Nadwa deferred to the authorities of Darul Uloom Deoband, and under Nadwī's influence the Tablīghī Jamāʿat came to have a strong presence at Nadwa.

As a student, Nadwī studied under prominent ʿulamaʾ, most notably the Moroccan Salafī Taqī al-Dīn al-Hilālī (d. 1987) and the Deobandī scholar-activist Ḥusayn Aḥmad al-Madanī (d. 1957). In a visit to Lahore in 1929, Nadwī met the Indian poet-philosopher Muhammad Iqbal (d. 1938) and wrote an Arabic study of Iqbal that popularized the latter's work in the Arab world. Perhaps his most notable relationship was with Abū al-Aʿlā al-Mawdūdī (d. 1979) and the Jamāʿat-i Islāmī. When Mawdūdī established the Jamāʿat in 1941 he sent letters of invitation to more than fifty Indian ʿulamāʾ. While the senior ʿulamāʾ did not respond, a few younger ones accepted and became founding members, among them Nadwī. Nadwī's formal relationship with the Jamāʿat was short-lived, and in October 1942 he parted ways with the organization. Despite this formal break, he maintained a working relationship with Mawdūdī through translating the latter's writings into Arabic, and he remained intimate friends with many of the Jamāʿat's senior members.

Upon leaving the Jamāʿat, Nadwī turned to the Tablīghī Jamāʿat, the Indian revivalist effort of Maulānā Muḥammad Ilyās Kāndhalavī (d. 1943), and the Ṣūfī teachings of Mawlānā ʿAbd al-Qādir Raipuri (d. 1962). Ilyās's vision of Islamic revival focused on individual and inter-Muslim moral reform through preaching. Nadwī wrote a biography of Ilyās and was greatly influenced by him, but he parted ways with the latter's successors, finding the focus of the group ill-suited to reaching educated Muslims. In all of his disagreements with his peers, Nadwī never severed relationships nor engaged in polemics, preferring to maintain ties with Muslim activists and scholars while giving counsel and advice on issues they disagreed on.

Nadwī's literary production was vast, including books and articles in both Urdu and Arabic, many of which have been translated into English and other Western languages. His first Arabic publication, at the age of seventeen, was an essay on Sayyid Aḥmad Shahīd that was published in al-Manār, the journal edited by Rashīd Riḍā (1865–1935). One of his most famous works is his 1950 Mādhā khasira al-ʿālam bi inhiṭaṭ al-muslimīn (What Has the World Lost with the Decline of Muslims?). In this book, Nadwī provides a narrative for the emergence of Islam and Islamic history that he contrasts with the history of Europe and European civilization, culminating in the domination of the latter over the former. This narrative is framed in terms of Islam and jāhilīyah, respectively, where the latter category is expanded beyond pre-Islamic Arabia to include the entire pre-Islamic world and, more importantly, modern Europe. The vision of revival that he articulates in this book assigns a central role to Arabs as leaders of the Islamic revival. It was thus influential on Arab Muslim activists in articulating a narrative of rise, decline, and revival, in addition to providing a counternarrative to Arab nationalist discourses. Islamists, particularly Sayyid Quṭb, were influenced by Nadwī's articulation of modern Arab nationalism as jāhilīyah and appropriated this idea in their own discourses.

Nadwī's vision of Islamic activism however differed significantly from Islamist ideologues. In a 1979 essay titled Al-tafsīr al-siyāsī lil-Islām fī mirʿāt kitābāt al-ustādh Abī al-Aʿlāʾ al-Mawdūdī wa-al-shahīd Sayyid Quṭb, Nadwī provides a critique of Islamist notions of religion as articulated in Mawdūdī's essay The Qurʾan's Four Foundational Terms and Quṭb's Milestones. A central point of Nadwī's critique is their notion of “establishing religion” (iqāmat al-dīn). Nadwī notes that Mawdūdī and Quṭb's texts make political ascendancy of a vanguard group of believers the key pillar in the establishment of religion. In this vision, political authority is made the ultimate telos of Islam in light of which all Islamic teachings, practices, and history become reinterpreted. While Nadwī did not deny a political dimension of Islam, the focus of his essay was to highlight and problematize Islamist reinterpretations of religion that he saw as breaking from normative Islamic teachings, highlighting in particular how Islamist interpretations instrumentalize religion and empty it of spiritual and ethical dimensions.

Nadwī's notion of Islamic revival and “establishing religion” is reflected in his influential four-part work on Islamic revivalism, Rijāl al-fikr wa-al-daʿwah, the first two volumes of which were delivered as lectures on a visit to Damascus. The first volume provides biographies of an eclectic collection of revivalists, containing entries on political leaders (ʿUmar ibn ʿAbd al-ʿAzīz), Ṣūfīs (al-Ḥasan al-Baṣrī, ʿAbd al-Qādir al- Jīlānī, and Jalāl al-Dīn al-Rūmī), and theologians-cum-jurists (Aḥmad ibn Ḥanbal, Abū al-Ḥasan al-Ashʿarī, al-Ghazālī). The remaining three volumes are dedicated to Ibn Taymīyah, Aḥmad Sirhindī, and Shāh Walī Allāh, respectively. A central aspect of this book is that Islamic revival is not conceived of as pertaining to the political sphere alone; it focuses instead on the ability of Islamic teachings to impact individual Muslims and society.

Nadwī opposed the partition of India, agreeing with his teacher Ḥusayn Aḥmad Madanī, who worked with the Congress Party for Indian independence. Nadwī's political activism developed in the 1960s and reflected the context of a religious and cultural minority in an ostensibly secular and democratic state. According to Nadwī, domination in a modern nation-state is all-pervasive, extending to virtually every aspect of life, education, and moral formation. Based on this observation about the reach of the state, he saw it as imperative for Muslims to be involved in the political processes in order to defend and preserve Indian Muslim culture. To this end, in 1964 Nadwī, along with other leading Indian religious figures, established the Muslim Majlis-i Mushāwarat (The Muslim Consultative Assembly). The Majlis was explicitly not a political party but an advisory group that sought to dialogue with existing parties on Muslim concerns and to facilitate intercommunal goodwill.

In 1973 Nadwī was part of a group that established the Muslim Personal Law Board, which aimed to maintain the sovereignty of the Muslim community on matters pertaining to personal law, which Nadwī led from 1983. The 1985 Shah Bano case brought the problem of personal status law into sharper focus. A divorced Muslim woman took her ex-husband to court to demand continued financial support. The husband argued that, according to Islamic law, her “waiting period” after the divorce had ended and that he was no longer financially responsible for her well-being. The High Court of Madhya Pradesh ruled in favor of Shah Bano, a verdict upheld by the Supreme Court. Muslim religious authorities of all stripes, under the Muslim Personal Law Board, came out in staunch opposition to this ruling, demanding that the government repeal the Supreme Court decision. Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi met several times with Nadwī, and in 1986 the Muslim Women (Protection of Rights on Divorce) Bill was passed, overturning the Supreme Court's decision.

Though based at Nadwa, in Lucknow, Nadwī was an itinerant scholar, visiting virtually every Muslim-majority country in the Middle East, Asia, and Africa, in addition to Muslim communities in Europe and America. Through his travels, he came into contact with the most prominent figures of Islamic thought and activism in his lifetime, too numerous to list here. Of note are the ʿulamāʾ and activists of Syria, Egypt, Morocco, and Saudi Arabia, where he spent time writing and teaching. His mastery of spoken and literary Arabic endeared him to scores of Arab Muslim activists and to the Arab public. The prefaces and introductions that he wrote to numerous books were published in three sizable volumes and testify to the scope of his relationships, spanning the Arabic- and Urdu-speaking worlds.

Nadwī's influence as a transnational religious scholar and as a leader of Indian Muslims was substantial, extending well beyond India. In a period of tremendous contestation within Islamic activism on the interpretation of Islam, the reception of Nadwī's efforts has been overwhelmingly positive, with few detractors. His writings remain in print throughout the Muslim world and have been incorporated into the curricula of many educational institutions. What resonates most among Muslim activists and scholars are his indefatigable efforts in the cause of Islamic revival, his general lack of partisanship, and his saintly reputation. For many Muslims, this latter feature is testified to by the fact that on 31 December 1999 he died while reading the Qurʾān on a Friday morning in Ramaḍān.


  • Choughley, Abdul Kader. Islamic Resurgence: Sayyid Abul Hasan ʿAli Nadwī and His Contemporaries. New Delhi: DK Printworld, 2011.
  • Hartung, Jan-Peter. Viele Wege und ein Ziel: Leben un Wirken von Sayyid Abūl- Ḥasan ʿAlī al-Ḥasanī Nadwī, 1914–1999. Wurzburg, Germany: Ergon, 2004.
  • Nadwī, Muḥammad Akram. Abū al-Ḥasan al-Nadwī: Al-ʿālim al-murabbī wa-al- dāʿīyah al-ḥakīm. Damascus: Dār al-Qalam, 2006.
  • Sikand, Yoginder. The Origins and Development of the Tablighi Jamaʿat, 1920–2000: A Cross-Country Comparative Study. Hyderabad, India: Orient Longman, 2002.
  • Sikand, Yoginder. “Sayyed Abul Hasan ʿAli Nadwi and Contemporary Islamic Thought in India.” In The Blackwell Companion to Contemporary Islamic Thought, edited by Ibrahim M. Abu Rabiʿ, pp. 88–1044. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell, 2006.
  • Zaman, Muhammad Qasim. “The Role of Arabic and the Arab Middle East in the Definition of Muslim Identity in Twentieth Century India.” Muslim World 87, nos. 3–4 (1997): 272–298.
  • Zaman, Muhammad Qasim. The Ulama in Contemporary Islam: Custodians of Change. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2002.
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