By Dr Muhammad Maroof Shah
15 Mar 2018
Comprehensiveness, Subtlety, Psychological Perspicuity and Courage To Chart New Paths
Mass Education and Mass Media have been accompanied by certain degeneration, and decadence in the use of language, in the level of scholarly discourse, besides general trivialization and ideological colouring; as such oblivion of, or alienation from, intellectual and spiritual elite that resist this reduction. What strikes us today in popular literature on Islam is, generally speaking, superficiality, polemical spirit, lack of serious engagement with all the facets of tradition as a whole, failure to be respectfully critical of great predecessors, reluctance to exercise Ijtihad, and baneful influence of certain politicization of discourse. What equally strikes us, however, in the case of such figures as Maulana Thanwi, is profundity, comprehensiveness, subtlety, psychological perspicuity and courage to chart new paths.
There are some gifts for the century to help countless people progress on spiritual path and clarify doubts, or perplexities. One such gift was Maulana Ashraf Ali Thanwi at whose feet we learn today something of what is called traditional Islam. If one were asked to choose only one writer on Islam in the 20th century to be taken as representing both the comprehensive and essential aspects of the tradition to be preserved in the face of some disaster, one could vote for Thanwi’s collected works.
Maulana Thanwi said, the fact that Imam Anwar Shah Kashmiri is Muslim is a proof of Islam. One could transpose the same claim to him in turn with the difference that the fact Maulana Ashraf Ali is a Sufi is a proof of orthodoxy of Sufism. Any critique of Sufism in the 20th century South Asia that bypasses comprehensive restatement of Sufi doctrine and practice in many volumes in Thanwi corpus is shallow. One can judge how shallow is anti-Sufi rhetoric by noting its lack of reticence in approaching thousands of works by the best minds in all ages from early development of Islam till date that demonstrate – and not merely argue – moral, spiritual and intellectual energy of Tasawwuf. Islam’s best in art, poetry, aesthetics, philosophy, metaphysics, ethics, psychology/pneumatology, symbolism, medicine and a host of other sciences can’t be understood except in light of Sufism. Sufism is the master key to understand not only ordinary Muslim life but also life and work of greatest of Ulema in general and some of the greatest Quran exegetes, Hadith scholars, Fuqaha, theologians, poets and metaphysicians. All these points surface up in the pages of Thanwi whose most abiding contribution that will stay is revivification of Sufism.
Reading Thanwi we realize lack of very serious engagement with Sufism in either modernist or so-called Salafist works. Refuting, in the name of so-called pure Islam or Aslaf, Sufism – especially as it flourished in Indian subcontinent – would require detailed engagement with such towering scholar-sages as Ashraf Ali Thanwi, whose command of exoteric science and relevant Hadith corpus and theological issues is indisputable. A critique of certain peripheral practices or customs popularly associated with Sufism is an internal issue that South Asian scholars have been quite alert to as insiders. In fact we don’t find amongst the frontline mainstream scholars in South Asia including those who are classified in Ahl-e-Hadith camp anyone who is not a Sufi or who rejects the key notions of tariqa and gnosis or could be offensively disrespectful towards iconic figures in Sufism such as Ibn Arabi. Maulana Thanwi gives voice to much of the legacy of around 13 centuries of Islam.
Maulana Thanwi helped restore theoretical and practical Sufism the vital place in the Islamic tradition it ever had throughout the last millennium. In Thanwi’s Bayan al-Quran we find, as Qasim Zaman emphasizes in his slim but illuminating volume Ashraf Ali Thanwi: Islam in Modern South Asia, that Sufism is clearly presented as part of the Qur’anic sciences, and no less so than are matters of lexicography. In “The Reality of the Path according to the [Prophet’s] Elegant Example,” Thanwi lists 330 Hadith reports in terms of which he finds justification for particular Sufi beliefs and practices in the teachings of the Prophet (SAW). It is Thanwi’s monumental 24 volume work on Rumi in The Key to the Mathnawi, and less noticed work on Hafiz that show, against the popular fashion of disowning our legacy in the name of “pure” Islam, how it is possible to place classics of Persian poetry in the mainstream of Islamic artistic and spiritual tradition.
Maulana Thanwi’s classic statement regarding Ibn Arabi’s orthodoxy that presents Deobandi standpoint succinctly needs to be noted today as we find polarization of opinions on him contributing to intellectual chaos affecting modern Islam. Thanwi noted that the “vast majority of the community’s elders” had viewed Ibn Arabi favourably and “this provided enough justification to continue doing so, without, however, turning this into an endorsement of all his views.” More important to note is Thanwi’s able advocacy and brilliant exposition of Tawhid-I-Wujoodi. One recalls here Ghalib’s crisp presentation of the same that should dispel popular misperceptions and grounds for any misappropriation for antinomian cause. Iqbal’s later turn to Hallaj and Ibn Arabi and, as Yusuf Salim Chisti attempted to show, his rediscovery of significance of Wujoodi Tawhid, is an instructive case for those who jump to conclusions and quote medieval critics of Ibn Arabi despite centuries of scholarship that has cleared key charges from Ibn Taymiyyah and others against him. For Thanwi Ibn ‘Arabi’s view that Sufi saints (Auliya) like himself were superior to God’s prophets (anbiya) in terms of their knowledge was defensible on the ground that “a distinction ought to be made between forms of knowledge that are aimed at or intended (Maqsood) for religious guidance, and other kinds of knowledge that are not. A prophet’s knowledge is of the former sort; a mystic, for his part, might be more knowledgeable, but only in the sense of having been blessed with a kind of knowledge not required for righteous living.”
Thanwi’s disciple, Zafar Ahmad ‘Usmani, completed a work in defence of Hallaj along the lines that his Master had envisaged, and did so in the master’s lifetime.
Thanwi needs to be explored by modern scholars of mysticism and philosophy of religion for his brilliant balanced and nuanced formulations of classical synthesis of Fiqhi Asgar and Fiqh-I Awsat (Tasawwuf) in the backdrop of Muslim theology – and metaphysics – (Fiqh-I Akbar) against majority of modern critics. It is significant to note that one of Thanwi’s works (Answer to Modernism) was co-translated by one of the disciples of Thanwi’s disciple Mufti Muhammad Shafi, none other than South Asia’s most important and brilliant literary critic Hasan Askari.
Some points defended by Thanwi, through enormous scholarship, for consideration of us all include:
Thanwi concurred with the judgment of Ibn ‘Arabi that there are two kinds of Sufi masters: those fully observant of Shari’a norms and others overwhelmed by changing mystical “states” and the latter should not be emulated though ought to be given their share of respect.
Although the fact that “Sufism was, above all, a matter of discipline and practice, not mystical experience… meant that anyone with the necessary determination could successfully walk on the Sufi path” one must remember that the basic qualification for entry to heaven for a believer doesn’t include Sufism.
Sufism that seeks special states, relies on dreams, courts mystical powers, hankers after kashf and indulges in mystifying narratives and abstruse or wooly speculations and pursues so-called spiritual pleasures is not what is ideally required or may well prove a distraction.
“Where the apparently wayward practices of the Sufi masters of old could not be easily interpreted either as having been broadly in conformity with Shari’a norms or even as belonging to the category of means towards an acceptable end, they could be seen as the acts of those who had no control over what they were doing and, as such, were blameless.”
“Sufis might do more harm than good if they insisted that everything they did had clear warrant in the foundational texts, that it carried the same authority as did the well-established goals of the Shari’a.”
Rather than reform Sufism as modernists and some Ulema would suggest, the task is to appreciate that Thanwi “did not have a narrow set of criteria in terms of which to “reform” Sufism or to make it compatible with Shari’a norms. Rather, it was precisely this lack of a narrowly Shari’a-minded vision, so far as Sufism is concerned, that explains his success as a Sufi.”
Sufism was not to be a bridge to non-Muslims. (I think this is difficult to concede in view of weight of history and modern scholarship to the contrary. I think Thanwi was too occupied with defending and consolidating separate Muslim identity to give detailed attention to the problem of religious other and he had only – and rather problematic – medieval texts as reference points to build his opinions upon. He had no first hand – and arguably not even proper second hand – access to great works in comparative religion written in his lifetime. Thanwi’s distrust of mystical experience owes partly to his anxiety to ward off claims of mystics from other traditions, a posture that modern scholarship and some classical Sufi authorities find problematic.)
The specific contours of Thanwi’s legal philosophy, psychology and theology that limit his choices for seekers (Saliks) in general and fatwa seeking masses in particular to accommodate less ideal modes of living forced by modernity call for informed analysis and critique in light of great Sufi Masters and jurists who embody other less disciplinarian streams of thinking. What needs to be emphasized is that Thanwi had much more optimistic view of otherworldly prospects for sinning believers than has been usually the case amongst Ulema – he was read as mercy/Basharat centric and once remarked that hell, for a believer, is like a shower in rather hot Hammam that cleanses – and this makes him contributor to less strict legalistic interpretations.
What is especially at stake is more a question of psychology than theology as his project has been to transform people for which he favoured more disciplinarian attitude. To illustrate, Thanwi’s Bahishti Zewar and other reformatory works that have been quite influential although modern scholarship has pointed out problematic areas including the rather outdated socio-economic and political setting presupposed in those works. Modern women can’t but feel alienated from certain opinions expressed therein. But what is important to note is attention given to comprehensive development of women’s education that outsmarts modern conception in many ways though, on certain points besides its medieval colouring, would call for rethinking by 21st century scholarship.