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Nadwat al-ʿUlamāʾ

SherAli Tareen
The [Oxford] Encyclopedia of Islam and Law What is This? An English-language legal reference for scholars of Islamic studies and Western engaged readers presenting the history and development of Islamic Law.

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Nadwat al-ʿUlamāʾ

Nadwat al-ʿUlamāʾ is an Islamic seminary-cum-ideological orientation (maslak) that originated in 1894 and was formally established as an institution of higher learning in 1906 in the North Indian city of Lucknow. It is widely regarded as among the most influential modern Muslim movements in South Asia and elsewhere. Among the pioneers of Nadwat al-ʿUlamāʾ were prominent Indian Muslim scholars such as the founder of the school Muḥammad ʿAlī Mongīrī (d.1927 C.E.), Sayyid Abu ʿl-Ḥasan ʿAlī Nadwī (d.1999 C.E.), and Shiblī Nuʿmānī (d. 1914 C.E.).

Nadwat al-ʿUlamāʾ was founded during a moment of tremendous intellectual and social fermentation in Muslim India. The collapse of the Mughal Empire, the brutal defeat of Muslims in the 1857 mutiny, and the ensuing consolidation of British colonial power were all tectonic developments that fundamentally transformed the narrative of South Asian Islam. This loss of political sovereignty catalyzed an unprecedented degree of intellectual expenditure, debates, and contestations among the Indian Muslim scholarly elite. In the last decades of the nineteenth century, a number of important Muslim reform movements emerged and flourished in North India.

Each of these movements sought to “reform” Islam in light of the new position of Indian Muslims as colonized subjects. However, what the work of reform meant for them varied significantly, often resulting in heated debates and polemics. Some reformist schools such as the Aligarh Muslim University, founded by the prominent scholar Sayyid Aḥmad Khān (d. 1898 C.E.) in 1875 C.E., championed the embrace of Western scientific knowledge as a means to restore the “rational” foundations of Islam. In Khān’s view, for Indian Muslims to remain competitive in the new colonial public sphere, a firm grasp of Western science and traditions of knowledge was imperative. Moreover, much like other modernists of his time, Khān was not particularly interested in debates surrounding the normative validity of everyday rituals and religious practices. The emphasis of his reform project was on establishing Islam’s compatibility with modernity. However, other Muslim reformers such as scholars of the famous Deoband Madrasa (established in 1867 C.E.) proffered a contrasting template of normativity.

For the Deoband school, Western knowledges and conceptions of morality, coupled with heretical innovations (bidʿa/pl.bidaʿ) in everyday practices, represented the most urgent threats confronting Indian Muslims. The Deoband pioneers, who were extremely critical of Khān’s modernist inclinations, sought to purify rituals (such as the Prophet’s birthday celebration) that in their opinion had become terminally corrupted as practiced in India. Deoband scholars were also generally suspicious of Western science and other technologies of colonial modernity, even though they showed remarkable dexterity in utilizing colonial technologies such as print, railways, and the postal system in propagating their reform project. Although more closely aligned with the Deoband movement, Nadwat al-ʿUlamāʾ tried to harmonize these opposing trends of Muslim reformist thought (as emblematized by the Deoband and the Aligarh schools) in colonial India.

Nadwat al-ʿUlamāʾs foundational purpose was the cultivation of Indian Muslims who could confidently confront the moral challenges of modernity by grounding themselves in traditional sources of knowledge, ethics, and law. More specifically, the pioneers of Nadwat al-ʿUlamāʾ were animated by three interconnected aspirations/objectives:

  • 1. Enacting a comprehensive program of curricular reform in Islamic seminaries in India
  • 2. Dissolving intra-Muslim rivalries and antagonisms in an effort to establish communal harmony and unity
  • 3. Producing Muslim scholars who were both intimately familiar with traditional disciplines of knowledge and also capable of confronting the social, cultural, and political demands of modernity

One of the central motivations underlying the establishment of Nadwat al-ʿUlamāʾ was the anxiety that traditionally educated Muslim ʿulamaʾ were becoming increasingly irrelevant in the modern Indian public sphere. The founder of the school Muḥammad ʿAlī Mongīrī expressed this anxiety in vivid terms when he wrote “It is of utmost importance to produce a class of Muslim scholars who are aware of societal realities and conditions; for instance, the economic problems confronting ordinary Muslims, the political principles through which the government of the day organizes its sovereignty, the implications of shifts in those principles for the daily lives of Muslims (Nadwī, 1983, p. 140).”

Crucial to rehabilitating the position of the ulama in society was the role of knowledge and education. According to the pioneers of Nadwat al-ʿUlamāʾ, the onset of colonial modernity had transformed the very conceptual apparatus through which categories such as religion, law, and politics were imagined. Therefore, to reclaim their authority in the public sphere, it was incumbent on Indian Muslim scholars to reorganize their educational curricula in a way that reflected the epistemic and political demands of modernity.

To remedy this dissonance between modern conditions and traditional knowledges, a reevaluation of the curriculum in Indian Islamic seminaries was unavoidable. To this end, the founders of Nadwat al-ʿUlamāʾ enacted important changes to the canonical Dars-i Niẓāmī curriculum [named after the eighteenth century scholar Mulla Niẓām al-dīn (d.1748 C.E.)] that was used to train Muslim legal scholars in nineteenth century India. These changes are quite revealing of Nadwat al-ʿUlamāʾs self-imagination as an educational institution and as a movement of moral reform. For instance, Nadwat al-ʿUlamāʾ scholars argued that there was an overemphasis on books dealing with logic, philosophy, and the rational sciences in the traditional educational curriculum. As a result, students were unable to develop advanced proficiency in disciplines such as Qurʾānic exegesis, ḥadīth, jurisprudence, and dialectical theology.

Correcting this imbalance was crucial for the task of producing scholars who had mastered the sources and applications of Islamic law. Moreover, according to Nadwat al-ʿUlamāʾ pioneers, it was also imperative for modern jurists and scholars to acquire an aesthetic taste for the humanities more broadly. Knowledge of disciplines such as history, geography, Arabic literature, poetry, rhetoric, and public speaking was critical to the formation of jurists who were not only experts in religious law but who were also civically engaged leaders of society. In addition, a well-rounded education in the humanities was also the key to creating an intellectual environment that repelled intra-Muslim polemics and doctrinal hairsplitting over secondary questions of hermeneutics and normative practice.

Central to Nadwat al-ʿUlamaʾs program of religious reform was the promise of fashioning a class of Indian Muslim scholars who were at once cosmopolitan modern citizens and impeccable custodians of traditional knowledges, norms, and virtues. A command of the Arabic language was a critical ingredient in realizing this promise. All major Islamic seminaries in colonial India trained students in Arabic. But the founders of Nadwat al-ʿUlamāʾ put a special emphasis on the indispensability of Arabic to the formation of global/cosmopolitan Indian Muslim scholars. Arabic represented an essential medium through which the ulama of India could freely participate in international networks of Islamic scholarship and intellectual exchange. The cosmopolitan focus of Nadwat al-ʿUlamāʾ was emblematized in the career of Abuʿl Ḥasan ʿAlī Nadwī who established himself as a leading Muslim scholar not only in India but around the world, most especially in the Arab Middle East.

According to the social imaginary of scholars attached to Nadwat al-ʿUlamāʾ, law, ethics, and the cultivation of virtue were inseparably intertwined. It was impossible to divorce knowledge of the law from the cultivation of habits, dispositions, and norms of everyday practice that attuned a subject to fulfilling the ethical demands of law. It is for this reason that the pioneers of Nadwat al-ʿUlamāʾ took tremendous interest in curating an educational environment that aimed at much more than just training competent jurists. Moreover, it was of paramount importance to immerse students in a daily routine and in an ethos of learning that keenly harnessed their affective sensibilities.

Some of the rules and regulations put in place by Nadwat al-ʿUlamāʾ reflect the desire of its founders to establish an Islamic seminary that resembled a modern university. For instance, each student was provided his own individual room for residence; all students were required to wear a common uniform patterned on the garb of the Arab descendants of the Prophet; all daily activities such as praying, eating, sleeping, and exercise, were to be undertaken during designated times; students and faculty would eat together in an official dining hall; following evening prayers students were expected to take part in physical exercise and recreational sports; after their formal classes students were trained in manual labor skills to encourage economic self-sufficiency; and in case of illness students were provided medical care at an official clinic attached to the seminary.

Through these institutional measures, Nadwat al-ʿUlamāʾ sought to produce graduates who were both experts in Islamic law and also disciplined subjects of a modern colonial society.


  • Hartung, Jan-Peter. Islamic Education, Diversity, and National Identity: Dīnī madāris in India post 9/11. Thousand Oaks, Calif.: SAGE Publications, 2006.
  • Nadwī, Abu#x02BF;l Ḥasan ʿAlī. Kārvān-i Zindagī. Lucknow: Maktaba-yi Islām, 1983.
  • Nadwī, Muhammad Isḥāq. Tārīkh-i Nadwat al-ʿUlamāʾ, vols. 1 and 2. Lucknow: Daftar-i Niẓāmat-i Nadwat al-ʿUlamāʾ, 1983.
  • Rahman, Fazlur. Islam and Modernity: Transformation of an Intellectual Tradition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982.
  • Zaman, Muhammad Qasim. Custodians of Change: The ʿUlama in Contemporary Islam. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2002.
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