Have we forgotten Shibli Nomani ?

Have we forgotten Shibli Nomani ?

A Rememberance on his 152nd birth anniversary:

By Kaleem Kawaja,

“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 Musalmans 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 easten 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 thirty-one 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 on June 3, 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

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.

Shbli 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’s legacy

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

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
all-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 kaleem kawaja@hotmail.com



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