“Yeh maana tum ko talwaron ki tezi aazmani haiy,
Humari gurdanon pur ho gaa is ka imtihaan kub tuk”
( We know you want to display your military might,
But for how long will it be at our cost.)
………..Shibli Nomnai in “Shahar-e- Aaashob-e-Islam” (The ruined city of Islam” )
In recent years whenever I have enquired from well educated north-Indian Muslims about Allama Shibli Nomani, they have told me that I should talk to someone from Azamgarh, because that is where he was from, and that is where the Shibli Academy and Shibli National College are located. So recently I traveled to Azamgarh, visited both institutions and Shibli’s grave there and talked to a few of Shibli’s descendents. What I discovered is that despite his awesome services and contribution in furthering the causes of the Indian nation, the culture and heritage of the Mussalmans of South Asia and his yeoman services in spreading education in the community, the Qaum has relegated him as a remote figure in the pages of history. Further some people do grave injustice when they say that Shibli was a personality largely from Azamgarh and east U.P.
The fact is that from the young age of 25 Shibli lived away from Azamgarh, serving in institutions all over the country and abroad and returned to live in Azamgarh only a couple of years before his untimely death at age 57 in 1914. It is injustice to Shibli that the Aligarh Muslim University, Nadvat ul Uloom and Osmania University where Shibli spent thirtyone years of his life have done little to retain his memory. Next only to Sir Syed Ahmad Khan, Shibli was a crusading pioneer in the Aligarh movement to spread modern education in the Muslim qaum that was badly ravaged by the 1957 war of independence. Indeed Shibli, who was a child of India’s first war of independence, was born in 1857 in Azamgarh.
Shibli completed his education in fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence), Usul (Islamic principles), Hadith (traditions of prophet Mohammad), Munazra (comparative religious debate), Maqulat (rational science) and astronomy under illustrious scholars like Maulana Farooq Chiryakoti, Hakim Abdullah Jairajpuri and Maulana Irshad Hussain of Rampur. Shibli began his career by first working as a lawyer in Azamgarh and Jaunpur. But starting in 1878 Shibli was increasingly drawn to scholarship, comprising of learning and teaching. Thus he started writing discourses in ‘Awadh Panch’ and ‘Payam-e-yaar’, two contemporary newspapers of U.P. that talked of retaining the established values of the Muslim society.
At Aligarh College:
In 1881 Shibli visited Aligarh to meet Sir Syed Ahmed Khan. Subsequently as the then Anglo-Mohammedan Oriental College , then also known as ‘Madrasat al uloom Musalman’ needed a teacher for Eastern languages, Shibli applied for the position. Shibli’s interview for that position by Sir Syed Ahmad Khan is an interesting anecdote. On the day of his interview Shibli was asked to seat himself in the college’s library. In the library Shibli found that the book-shelves were unlocked and a few chairs were placed; he proceeded to browse through the books. The whole day passed but Sir Syed never came. Instead he sent word to Shibli to come to the library the next day. Again on the next day Shibli waited, browsing through books the entire day but again Sir Syed never came. Instead he again sent word to Shibli to come the next day. The same occurred on the third day. At the end of the third day, Sir Syed came to the library and told Shibli, “ Maulvi Shibli, the interview is over, go and start your teaching work”. On February 1, 1883, at the young age of twentyfive Shibli was appointed Assistant professor of Arabic and Persian at a monthly salary of forty rupees. Two years later he was promoted as professor and his monthly salary increased to seventy rupees.
Thus began the father-son like partnership of Shibli Nomani with Sir Syed Ahmad Khan who was forty years older than Shibli, to develop the Anglo Mohammedan college to impart modern education to the Mussalmans of India. Shibli was immensely popular among the students at Aligarh; some of them being Maulana Zafar Ali Khan, Mohammad Nazir, Sajjad Haider yaldram, Maulana Mohammad Ali Jauhar. Soon Shibli became the first editor of the Urdu version of Aligarh Institute Gazette. He brought in distinguished writers of the period like Altaf Hussain Hali and Munshi Mohammad Zakaullah. In the events at the college, Shibli often spoke eloquently about the crestfallen position of Muslims and the importance of the Aligarh movement. To raise funds for the nascent college he will often participate in events along with Thomas Arnold, Kennedy, Smith, Anthony and Yusuf Vakil. At Aligarh he also established students’ societies like ‘Akhwan ul safa’ and ‘Lajinatul Adab’.
Shibli Steps Out
In 1892 Shibli took leave from the Aligarh College and left for a six month travel through various countries in the middleeast. In this travel Shibli visited Aden, Syria, Cyprus, Turkey, Istanbul, Jerusalem, Beirut and Cairo. He met luminaries like Saiyad Tahir, Maulana Ali Pasha, Sheikh Abduh, Sheikh Hamza Fathullah, Syed Raza Misri among others. In these countries he studied the system of education in a variety of madrasas and colleges and became familiar with the literature of those countries. Upon his return from this travel Shibli introduced common boarding houses, common dining halls and uniform dress for students at the Aligarh school.
Also upon his return the British Indian government awarded Shibli with the honorific title of ‘Shams ul Ulema’. Shibli was also appointed a fellow of the then illustrious Allahabad University, member of the Bombay branch of Royal Asiatic Society, and he attended the Government Oriental conference in Shimla (1910), and the Coronation Durbar (1911) where he was introduced to King George V. In 1912 the Indian Government accepted many of Shibli’s recommendations for the reform of the syllabus in schools.
In Hyderabad and Turkey
In 1901 the Nizam of Hyderabad invited Shibli to Hyderabad to help set up the syllabus and systems at the new Oriental university that in time grew into the Osmania University. Shibli wrote the plan for the university entitled ‘Hyderabad ki mashraqi universirty’. In Hyderabad Shibli was appointed the secretary of Education and Arts at a monthly salary of five hundred rupees. In this position in Hyderabad, Shibli completed many works such as Al Ghazali (1902), Ibn al Kalam (1903), Sawaneh Maulana Rumi (1904). Also during his stay in Hyderabad he composed ‘Sher al Ajam’ and ‘Muwaznah Anis o Dabir’.
In 1913 Shibli was invited by the Ottoman Sultan of Turkey to develop the text books for the proposed university at Madina.
Shibli departs Aligarh for Nadvat ul Uloom, Lucknow
Despite his long and dedicated service to the Aligarh College, in the late 1890s Shibli started getting uncomfortable with uncontrolled modernity at the college. In fact Sir Syed himself was uncomfortable with the growth of over-anglicized trends at the Aligarh College. It is said that Sir Syed’s appointment of his son Syed Mahmood, a highly anglicized person as his successor as the secretary of the Aligarh Education Society, in preference to several of his staunch colleagues like Maulvi Samiullah, Karamat Hussain, Shibli Nomani etal led to a situation where several of these luminaries left the Aligarh college ultimately. It is said that a fortnight before his death in 1898 a major quarrel occurred between Sir Syed and his son Syed Mahmood due to the later’s very anglicized lifestyle, that caused Sir Syed to move out of the house and start living with his friend Haji Ismail Khan, where he soon breathed his last.
In 1896 Shibli first expressed a desire to leave the Aligarh college but was persuaded by the principal of the college, Theodore Beck to stay. Finally after the death of Sir Syed Shibli Nomani resigned from the Aligarh college in 1899. It was in 1905 after return from Hyderabad that Shibli Nomani joined Nadvat ul Uloom at Lucknow as the secretary of the institution. As at other institutions, Shibli threw himself with all his zeal to build Nadva into a quality institution and introduced new subjects and curriculum. He also started the journal Al Nadva that revolutionized the thinking of Ulema and broadened their outlook. At Nadva some of Shibli’s distinguished students were: Saiyed Sulaiman Nadvi, Maulana Abdul Majid Daryabadi, Maulana Masud Nadvi – the same people who later gave concrete shape to Shibli’s dream of Dar ul Muannifin at Azamgarh.
It was during his decade long sojourn at Nadva that Shibli visited Bombay and the nearby princely state of Janjirah in 1907. That is where he wrote the classic ‘Sher al ajam’, the history of the Persian poetry, and his treatise on ‘Islam and tolerance’.
However some of his critics at Nadva opposed Shibli for the modern syllabus that he institutionalized there as too modern. In fact for some of his compositions in ‘al Kalam’ some of his opponents charged him even with apostasy, just as Sir Syed Ahmad Khan was similarly charged for his Aligarh College movement. It is an irony that at the Aligarh college some of Shibli’s critics considered him as too conservative, while at Nadva some of his critics considered him a radical. Finally in 1913 Shibli Nomani resigned and left from Nadva after a decade of dedicated service to the institution.
Shibli and Maulana Azad
It was during his stay in Bombay that Shibli Nomani met the then youthful Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, who was then the editor of the Urdu journal ‘Lisan-ul-sidq’. Soon Shibli and Azad became close friends and colleagues and Azad spent some time at Nadva. Shibli invited Azad to join him in writing the magnum opus ‘Sirat ul Nabi’, considered Shibli Nomani’s landmark achievement, even though he did not live long enough to complete it. Such was Azad’s devotion to Shibli that after Shibli’s death when Syed Sulaiman Nadvi asked Azad if he will like to serve as a honorary fellow at the Dar ul Musannifin, Azad is reported to have said: “ I will willingly serve even as a porter”.
Shibli returns home to Dar ul Musannifin, Azamgarh
In 1913 at the age of fiftysix, after being away from his hometown of Azamgarh for thirtyone years, and having lived and worked all over India and having travelled abroad extensively, Shibli Nomani returned to settle down in Azamgarh. In Azamgarh he soon established Dar ul Musannifin (abode of writers) - that is today also known as Shibli Academy. In the short time before his death in November 1914, despite poor health Shibli did much to give a concrete shape to the new institution. It is a tribute to Shibli’s illustrious life and work that his students built his dream institution into a major center of learning and research related to Islam, Islamic civilization, Indo-Islamic culture and the Indian culture itself.
Shibli Nomani was a visionary and a restless soul who travelled wide and lived in places remote from his home in pursuit of learning, spreading knowledge, building institutions and bringing about a revolution in the thinking of Ulema, learened scholars and ordinary Muslims. Shibli was one of the most ardent nationalists devoted to his nation and to freeing it from the yoke of colonialism. At the Aligarh college he dedicated himself to providing modern education to Muslims. His letters to sir syed Ahmad Khan from Istanbul, Cairo and other places show his deep concern that Muslims study sciences. He admitted the importance of Western learning but was not prepared to ignore oriental subjects or belittle the merit of Islamic sciences. He disagreed with those who wanted to emulate the western ethos so much that it could destroy the identity of Muslims.
Shibli’s spirit of national integration is demonstrated by the manner in which he established a school in 1883 in his hometown of Aligarh, and named it ‘National School’; it is now a large post-graduate college with an enrollment of about 9,000 students. He instructed that the students in this school speak English language by the time they reach Standard V. A century ago Shibli was of the opinion that much of the Muslim antipathy to Western learning arose because of their ignorance of European languages. He was not satisfied with mere writing, learning and attending conferences, but also believed in action. For example when in 1912 Burn, the chief secretary of United Provinces government initiated a move to introduce Urdu in Devnagri script, Shibli opposed it stoutly and fought for the preservation of Urdu in Nastaliq script. Also in 1912 he introduced a resolution in Delhi demanding withdrawl of books that created discord among Indians of diverse faiths from schools and colleges.
Shibli praised the Congress party for raising the demand of self-government. While Shibli believed that the Congress party may not best represent the interests of the Muslim community, at the same time he dismissed the claims of Muslim League as the exclusive representative of Muslims. He did not subscribe to the fears expressed by Muslim League that by virtue of their numerical superiority Hindus would overwhelm Muslims. Indeed men like Maulana Mohammad Ali Jauhar and Maulana Azad who were Shibli’s close younger colleagues and who were considerably influenced by Shibli may be viewed as his political successors.
Have we forgotten Shibli?
In the aftermath of Shibli Nomani’s death his favourite pupil including the renowned Syed Sulaiman Nadvi, dedicated themselves to nurturing and building on his legacy. Syed Sulaiman Nadvi completed Shibli’s unfinished ‘Seerat un Nabi’ and together with others built Dar ul Musannifin in Azamgarh into a most illustrious institution of learning, research and publications in the area of Islamic thought and civilization that it became in the next few decades.
However, after 1947 Shibli Nomani’s name has suffered neglect by people outside his close circle and outside the Muslim community of Eastern U.P. For instance the Muslim qaum has not given Shibli the al-India stature that others like Sir Syed Ahmad Khan, Maulana Mohammad Ali Jauhar, Maulana Azad with whom he cam be easily ranked among the Muslim luminaries of the last 150 years. Aligarh Muslim University and Nadvat ul Uloom, Lucknow, the two institutions that he served for so long with so much untiring zeal and devotion and where he made so much contribution have not done much to perpetuate his memory.
It was only recently that Aligarh Muslim University built a students hostel in his name; but they did not name any of their better institutes, eg the library or one of the colleges after Shibli. Similarly Nadvat ul Uloom did not name any of its significant organs after him. Hardly any Muslim community university has named any major awards in Shibli’s name. And hardly any alumni of AMU memorialize Shibli by organizing annual lectures in his memory. The unkindest cut is that when you enquire about Shibli from north Indian Muslims they indicate that he is a historical figure from eastern UP and Azamgarh. This despite the fact that Shibli spent 31 of his 57 years serving educational institutions of the Muslims all over India, away from his home base. Today we need to make up for lost time and take steps to give Shibli a place of pride among the all-India luminaries of the Muslim qaum of the last two centuries.
The writer a community activist in Washington DC, can be reached on firstname.lastname@example.org