By: Kaleem Kawaja
In one of his immortal poems the legendary Persian poet Shaikh Saadi says that, when you travel through a desert you find that all varieties of humans, animals, birds and reptiles are going in the direction of the oasis. The same is true about the intellectual oases of our times. Thus in my quest to educate myself about the illustrious Muslim leader, educationist and literary icon Allama Shibli Nomani, I recently traveled to his hometown of Azamgarh in eastern Uttar Pradesh. Two major institutions, each about a century old that carry his name exist in the historical city of Azamgarh. One is the Shibli National College and the other is the Shibli Academy Dar-ul-Musannefin.
Over the course of the last century the Darul Musannefin Shibli Academy has taken its place alongside some well known research institutions. The small set of devoted scholars who built and nurtured the academy, preferred the pursuit of knowledge spurning the lure of status, comforts or emoluments, which could have been theirs for the asking. This is the same as the tradition of scholars in the world renowned Nalanda, Taxila, Alazhar and Nishapur.
The outline and concept of Dar ul Musannefin (abode of authors) was first developed and published by Allama Shibli Nomani in Maulana Azad’s journal, Al-Hilal in 1912. Maulana Azad was so impressed by the notion that he wrote back saying that he will be willing to serve the institution in any capacity whatsoever. With that objective in mind, as Shibli returned to Azamgarh from sojourns at Aligarh College and Nadvat ul Uloom, he established an endowment of his spacious garden, two small bungalows and about 300 books from his personal collection. Before his untimely death in November 1914, Shibli had also assembled a set of his ardent pupils to carry the project forward. Shibli had also developed the outline of a few works on Islamic learning, Indian history and oriental studies to be undertaken by the new academic center.
Shibli academy itself was formally established on November 1914 in Azamgarh by his pupils and associates three days following his death. Among others the prime builders of the institution were Syed Sulaiman Nadvi, Maulana Hameeduddin Farahi and Maulana Masood Ali.
Academy’s Growth as a national icon
The Academy gave new vision to the scholars and authors of that period in creative writing. Among books that served to give impetus to the new Academy were, Shibli’s Sher-e-Ajam, Mowazna-e-Anis-o-Dabir, Al Farroq, Al Mamun and ofcourse the magnum opus, Seerat un Nabi (of which Shibli had completed only the first volume).
It was left to Syed Sulaiman Nadvi to complete Shibli’s favourite project, Seerat un Nabi, that has since been acknowledged as the most comprehensive account of the life of prophet Mohammad. This book has already been translated in Turkish, Arabic and English. In the decades following the demise of Shibli Nomani, Dar ul Musannefin has continued to grow steadily while remaining true to its basic purpose of learning, research and publication. While focusing on the study of Islamic history and civilization it has remained distinct from being a theological seminary. Thus it has invited and attracted lots of non-Muslim luminaries to its fold.
Indeed the Academy has nurtured a unique brand of Muslim secularism; one that laid emphasis on its Islamic core yet refrained from any sectarian leanings or made judgment on other faiths. At the same time it refrained from mixing Islam with Hinduism and Christianity as a politician’s or a showman’s brand of secularism, that we see sometimes these days. During India’s long freedom movement many of the illustrious Hindu leaders of that movement had close friends among the resident scholars of the Academy and visited it often.
Prominent non-Muslim leaders like Mahatma Gandhi, Motilal Nehru, Jawaharlal Nehru, Ranjendra Prasad visited the academy, and stayed in its quarters as they were working to get Muslim intellectuals involved in the freedom movement. Even today there is a pavement adjacent to a well infront of the Academy’s building where the illustrious Nehru father and son are said to have taken bath during their visit.
One of the first major actions of the Academy was to set up a publication and printing department with its own press. The press has been modernized over the years with new machinery and is still quite active. In the last sixty years the Shibli Academy has published about 100 volumes of edited and compiled works by the Academy’s Fellows. Besides Seerat- un Nabi, Al- Farooq and Sher-e-Ajam have won recognition from scholars in Iran and Afghanistan who have translated it in their languages. Maulana Zafar Ali Khan, a pupil of Shibli made an effort to translate them into English. Other remarkable books published by the Academy over the years are: Life and work of Omar Khayyam by Sulaiman Nadvi; Sher-ul-Hind by Abdus Salam Nadvi; Gul-e-Rana by Abdul Hai.
Monthly Journal, “Maarif’
Maarif, the Academy’s scholarly journal has been continuously published every month for 92 years. Maarif, since its inception has been a most respected scholarly magazine covering Islamic studies, history and culture. In its field of study Maarif has very few competitors. Prof. Ishtiyad Ahmad Zilli is the present Editor and Janab Umair us Siddiq Nadvi, originally from Daryabad, is the Assistant Editor of this venerable journal.
Library and rare manuscripts
The heart of the Shibli Academy is its library that is equipped with a vast number of historical books, some of them most rare original manuscripts and books. For instance it contains the 400 year old illustrated manuscript of Abul Fazal’s ‘Akbarnama’; the 350 year old Persian translation of Upanishad commissioned by Prince Dara Shikoh - son of Moghul emperor Shahjahan; the 350 year old illustrated book ‘Moinul Arwah’ written by Princess Jahan Ara- sister of Moghul emperor Aurangzeb.
Additionally, the Academy’s library contains original letters in Urdu written by Mahatma Gandhi, Motilal Nehru, Jawaharlal Nehru, Rajendra Prasad and Maulana Azad in their own hand writing to Syed Sulaiman Nadvi. Those letters are written in very friendly terms addressing Syed Sulaiman Nadvi using the friendly term ‘tum”, as he was their personal friend and colleague in India’s freedom movement.
Favorite of the Luminaries
With its pluralist, cosmopolitan and composite outlook Shibli Academy has attracted the attention of a variety of India’s luminaries. Some of the notable luminaries are: Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, Maulana Azad, Tej Bahadur Sapru, Acharya Narendra Dev, Jaya Prakash Narayan, Dr Zakir Hussain, Lal Bahadur Shastri, Rafi Ahmad Kidwai, Maulana Hasrat Mohani, Maulana Husain Ahmad Madani.
Academy’s Golden Jubilee
Shibli Academy celebrated its golden jubilee in 1965. That celebration was presided over by Dr Zakir Hussain, the then vice-President of India. At that time learned scholars from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and countries of the middle-east participated in the event.
In 1982 the academy organized a world seminar on Islam and orientalists. In 1992 Maulana Abdul Manan Hilali assumed charge as honorary Secretary and is still continuing in that position. Prof Ishtiaq Ahmad Zilli, former professor of History at Aligarh Muslim University is the current Director of the academy.
In 1995 Maulana Ziauddin Islahi organized a world seminar of the Almi Rabta-e-Adab-e-Islami, on Swannah Nigari at the academy that was attended by over 100 scholars from far away places. This seminar was presided over by Maulana Syed Abul Hasan ali Nadvi of Nadvat ul Uloom, Lucknow.
Very recently in December 2008 Shibli Academy organized in Azamgarh an international conference on the Urdu Literary Culture: The Syncretic Tradition. This was in collaboration with National Council for Promotion of Urdu Language (NCPUL).
In November 2009 the Shibli Academy will complete 95 years in its long journey to preserve and promote the Indo-Islamic culture, civilization and intellectual heritage.
Neglect and Indifference
The buildings of the Shibli Academy and its all-India renown as a unique research and publication center thrived for several decades. Its various buildings, campus, library, printing press and reception halls continue to reflect its sober ethos of learning. Over the last thirty years the Academy has received some help from government organizations and from some philanthropists to make a handful of improvements in its facilities. Yet today a visitor to the Academy is left with the unmistakable impression that due to a paucity of funds the various facilities and programs of the Academy are stagnating and are facing neglect. The research and publication programs need significant improvement to modernize their facilities and to rejuvenate the publishing program itself. In recent decades government help to the Academy has gotten mired in political currents and the financial help has slowed to a trickle.
For me it was a surprise to find the very humble and basic condition in which the four hundred year old rare historical manuscripts, the hand-written letters of the luminaries of India’s freedom movement, and Allama Shibli’s original books, now about a century old, are being stored and displayed. These extremely rare manuscripts and documents are the legacy of the Indian nation and the Muslim qaum, that need much better care and attention. Similarly the printing department needs total overhaul and modernization.
Need for diversification and help
I also feel that with all of the Academy’s research material, its books and documents being in Urdu and Persian only, in today’s environment in India it will help the Academy if it introduces some publications in English and Hindi languages. It can still focus on the basic ethos of the Academy that has been at its core but it can diversify its medium and the method of its public relations program. That will help a lot of people who are not conversant with Urdu language, but who have serious interest in the heritage of South Asian Muslim qaum, to turn to Shibli Academy for their intellectual needs.
To accomplish these objectives and to bring the Academy back in the national and international spotlight, the Academy needs support and guidance from Indians and especially Muslims from all over South Asia. Our qaum should realize that the Shibli Academy is a rich and rare heritage of all South Asians, and the responsibility to preserve that lies with not just the people of Azamgarh or eastern Uttar Pradesh, but that of the entire nation.
The Academy is in immediate need of much financial contributions from all of us. Utilizing our contacts with the government, Muslim countries, other philanthropic organizations and individuals we all must help raise funds for this venerable century old unique institution. People who are associated with other successful institutions of the Qaum, for instance Aligarh Muslim University, Jamia Milia Islamia, Osmania University, Lucknow University, Islamic Development Bank, Raabta Islami, United Nations Educational Social Cultural Organization (UNESCO) etal are in a position to help burnish the image of the rare jewel of Shibli Academy, that has become somewhat dormant in the last few decades. We need to collectively infuse financial, technical and intellectual help to relieve the very depleted shoestring budget of this century old venerable legacy of us all.
The website (http://www.shibliacademy.org) contains photographs of the Shibli Academy’s buildings, library, list of publications, history and other details.
The writer, a community activist in Washington DC, can be reached on firstname.lastname@example.org