Ashraf Ali Thanvi: A Doyen of Islamic Scholarship and Mysticism

Ashraf Ali Thanvi: A Doyen of Islamic Scholarship and Mysticism
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By Tahir Iqbal

Islamic history is replete with the great minds who tried to untie the knots of ontological expositions of the sacred text. They expounded the intricacies of philosophical essence of the reality and the cosmos and delved deep into the relationship of man with the ‘being’ and the universe.
Imam Ghazali, a great legend of Islam who earned the title of Hujjut ul Islam (proof of Islam), for example, wrote extensively on metaphysics and mysticism. His Ihya Uloom al-Din is the magnum opus not only on mysticism and ontological issues but also ethics and jurisprudential domain. He revolted against Greek intellectualism and established the mystical experience as the sole way for the ‘knowledge of the being’.
Like Ghazali, there are many colossi in the modern era who walk on the same orbit of mysticism while having the traditional background firm and brawny. One such mystical gargantuan is Maulana Ashraf Ali Thanvi, who, according to Abdul Majid Daryabadi, is ‘Ghazali of modern period’.
Maulana Thanvi received his education at Darul Uloom Deoband and was initiated on the path of mysticism by a reputed mystic of the time, Haji Imdadullah Muhajir Makki.The conducive environment of Darul Uloom Deoband, combined with good teachers and Maulana’s own efficacy, contributed a lot to his intellectual as well as spiritual development. He was a virtuoso in all branches of Islamic sciences – Hadith, jurisprudence and Islamic mysticism. Ashraf Ali Thanvi was a spiritual guide to many including the great scholars like Syed Suleiman Nadwi, Abdul Majid Daryabadi and Mufti Mohammad Shafi. After his demise, his written material on mysticism and spiritual path continues to provide guidance to all seekers of reality and truth.
The pivotal point of Maulana Thanvi’s mystical discourse is the purification of Nafs and the spiritual development of an individual. Thanvi didn’t engage in public debates about religious doctrines and frivolous issues of fiqh. He primarily interacted with people in his capacity as a Sufi master. “The task of the Sufi master, he argued, is not to engage in debates with his disciples but to engage in their treatment.” He employed a friendly mode of interaction with those Muslim intellectuals who did not take the initiatory ‘Sufi pledge’ with him, and wanted to converse with them in a manner he deemed respectful.
Unlike Munsur al Hallaj and Al Bistami, Maulana Ashraf Ali Thanvi rejected the intoxication theory of mysticism and stressed on following the true contours of Islam as expounded by the Salaf-us-Saaliheen (the pious predecessors). Therefore, one can say that he was following the footsteps of Junaid of Baghdad. When somebody asked Junaid what the Tasawwuf is, he replied, “Following the Qur’an and Sunnah”.
According to Maulana Thanvi, pilgrimage to the tombs of saints and annual death rites of a particular saint is not acceptable. The rituals and Sufi practices which are antagonistic to the fundamentals mentioned in the Islamic tradtions are all different forms of innovation, therefore need to be debunked. Thanvi’s main contribution is the purification of mystical realm from the corruption and masqueraders. The basis of Tariqah is Tawhid. In his book, “Shariat Wa Tariqat”, Thanvi rejects the claims of those scholars who believe there is no Tassawuf/mysticism in Islam. He argued that the book of Allah and the Prophetic Sunnah are swathed with the teachings related to spiritualism and the purification of nafs. Syed Hussain Nasr has rightly said that the Qur’an contains episodes of sacred history which in reality depict “the epic of the life of the soul”. The Qur’an is the source of Islamic thought and law. It is also source of the spiritual path and art.
Ashraf Ali Thanvi re-established the connection between Shariah and Tariqah and made Tatbeeq (reconciliation) between various subtle issues of mysticism and the sacred text. He considers Abdiyat as the final stage of mystical path. A novice, according to him, should struggle to attain this final stage. The cornerstone of his mystical ideology is the formation of God-conscious personalities. He used to say, “If you want to be saint, qutb, ghaus, go somewhere else; if you want to be a human being come here”. He believed that the one who causes pain to any human heart could not attain spiritual experience.
Unlike the common mystics, Maulana Thanvi was firmly grounded in understanding of traditions and the Islamic texts. His valuable contribution to the Ummah was his incredible output of literature on various Islamic themes and issues. He wrote a great exegesis Bayan ul Qur’an, which undoubtedly is the most erudite of all commentaries on the Qur’an in the Urdu language. Imam Anwar Shah Kashmiri, well known for his scholarship in Islamic intellectualism, used to say that after reading Maulana’s Bayan ul Qur’an, he developed a desire to read Urdu books. Like Allama Alusi Baghdadi, Maulana Thanvi believed that the Qur’anic verses contain spiritual essence and have their own esoteric meaning. He did not interpret the Qur’an as the people of Batiniyah, rather used the established Usool (principles) of the exegetical sciences.
At the other end of the spectrum of the Qur’anic scholarship, Maulana Thanvi wrote the Jamal al-Quran which became the standard text book for students of Tajwid throughout the subcontinent. The Qur’an is the book of divine origin with the celestial aura and has to be recited with spiritual receptivity. The novice must realize that the tongue is merely a medium and he is hearing the speech from the Divine Himself.
To make Tasawwuf/mysticism easy and practical, Maulana Thanvi had a few principles to follow – to remove any misunderstanding:
Keep your religion above your worldly affairs.
Keep the Shariah superior to your intellect.
A seeker of the path should drop his wishes and follow the wishes of Allah.
Do not be lazy in things under your control; do not worry about the things beyond your control.
Keep the religious objectives in mind and forget about the rest.
Do not follow your desire but ask your intellect what to do and always keep the intellect under the control of the Shariah.
In one of his famous books, “Al-Takashu”f, the Maulana writes: “Every Muslim has duty to correct his beliefs and apparent deeds and then reform his/her hidden deeds. And, this reforming of one’s hidden deeds is the essence of Tariqah. The real nature of Islamic mysticism is not to complicate the ontological expositions but to purify one’s own self from the spiritual diseases like greediness, pride, lust, angry, and so on”.

—The author can be reached at: tiqbal525@gmail.com

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