Dehlavi, Shah Waliullah

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Shah Waliullah Dehlavi

Indian religious leader Shah Waliullah Dehlavi (1703-1762) was an influential Islamic reformer who sought to regenerate Muslim society in Asia. A prolific writer, he produced 51 important Islamic texts.

Through his writings and his teachings, as well as the life he led, Shah Waliullah Dehlavi inspired subsequent generations of Islamic followers who carried on his reformation mission after his death. Today people consider his writings to represent his most important achievement, especially his translation of the Holy Quran into a popular language, which made that religious text more accessible to a greater number of people.

Shah Waliullah Dehlavi was born on February 21, 1703, in the town of Phulat in Muzaffarnagar, Uttar Pradesh, India, as the reign of Aurangzeb, the Mughal emperor of India, was nearing its end. (Four years later, Aurangzeb died.) He was born as Qutb-ud-Din, but he would come to be better known as Shah Waliullah, an appellation that indicated his inherent goodness and spirituality.

His grandfather, Sheikh Wajihuddin, was a highranking military officer in the army of Shah Jahan, who sided with Prince Aurangzeb in the war of succession. His father, Shah Abdur Rahim, was a Sufi and an illustrious scholar who helped compile the Fataawa-i-Alamgiri, the huge written work of Islamic law. He taught at the Madrassa-iRahimiya, a theological college, or seminary, that he helped establish. The institution would become an important part of the religious emancipation of Muslim India, as it provided a starting point for later religious reformers.

Precocious Scholar

Shah Waliullah received his basic education from his grandfather, but his father later provided him with his academic and spiritual education. When he was only five years old, Shah Waliullah was introduced to Islamic education. Two years later he could recite the Holy Quran. Obviously, he was a precocious scholar. He was only ten years old when he was able to read from the Interpretation by Ja'mi, an acclaimed grammar book. Around this time he also gained knowledge of Tafseer, Hadith, spiritualism, mysticism, metaphysics, logic, and Ilm-ul-Kalam. Once introduced to Persian and Arabic languages, he was able to complete his lessons in one year. After that he concentrated on grammar and syntax. On top of all that, he studied medicine.

After his father died, Shah Waliullah, who was then 17 years old, became an educator at the Madrassa-i-Rahimiya. He taught there for 12 years, providing guidance to fellow Muslims on their spirituality and reformation. A deeply devout person, Shah Waliullah adhered to the Islamic custom of offering prayer five times a day. The Madrassa-iRahimiya would become the center of the Islamic Renaissance in the Indian subcontinent, as it attracted scholars from all parts of the country. After their training, they carried the seminary's teaching throughout the region.

Experienced Vision in Arabia

In 1730 Shah Waliullah went on to pursue higher studies in Arabia. He studied at Makkah and Madina, two renowned educational institutions, where he developed a reputation as a brilliant scholar. In all, he studied for 14 years in Madina, where he received his Sanad in Hadith (the oral traditions related to the teachings and the life of the Holy Prophet Muhammad). At the time, he also became aware that the Marathas (invading warriors from the Maratha Empire) staged continuous attacks within India, where they looted the wealth of the Muslims.

According to accounts, while he was in Arabia, Shah Waliullah received a vision of the Holy Prophet Muhammad, who commanded that he work to organize and then emancipate the Muslim community in India. Apparently in response to this vision, Shah Waliullah returned to Delhi on July 9, 1732, where he began what he considered to be his life's mission.

Became a Muslim Leader

In pursuing this mission, Shah Waliullah faced a formidable task. At the time, Muslim India was in chaos socially, politically, economically and spiritually. But Shah Waliullah identified the causes of the problems and indicated appropriate remedies. He was critical of the non-Islamic customs that had become integrated into Muslim society, mostly as a result of the Muslim society's exposure to Hinduism. Specifically, he denounced extravagant marriage ceremonies and festivals. Also, he determined the causes of the economic erosion in the Muslim society and proposed appropriate changes, including greater distribution of wealth, a concept that predated the economic theories of Karl Marx, the nineteenthcentury philosopher and economist who denigrated capitalism and became known as the father of communism.

But the larger, underlying problem, Shah Waliullah believed, was a lack of knowledge on the part of Muslims about Islam and the Holy Quran. This ignorance, he felt, was the source for all of the troubles that the Muslims endured.

Once settled in Delhi, Shah Waliullah began teaching students in the many varied branches of Islamic learning, as well as preparing them to be missionaries who would go out and reveal to the masses the true nature of Islam. Further, to help promote Islamic teachings and make the Holy Quran more comprehensible to laypeople, he translated the Quran into Persian, which was the common language at the time. He also tried to help settle the differences that separated Muslims into various sectarian groups. In this way, he rose to become a great leader as well as a scholar, and his followers recognized in him certain saintly qualities. His ambitions were great yet selfless, and he saw his own mission as engineering the revival of Islam in India. A humble man, Shah Waliullah sought no personal reward but only greater glory for his fellow Muslims.

Besides being a deeply spiritual and noted academic, Shah Waliullah was also politically astute. He helped create a united Muslim front to oppose the rising Marhatta power, which threatened the already deteriorating Muslim influence in the northern part of India. To forestall the eradication of Muslim power, he prevailed upon the national leaders of the time, including Ahmad Shah Abdali, Nizam ul Mulk, and Najibuddaula. In particular, he wrote to Ahmad Shah Abdali, asking him to help the Muslims of India defeat the Marhattas, as well as their constant threat to the declining Mughal Empire. As a result of the plea, Ahmad Shah Abdali appeared on the battlefield of Panipat in 1761 and, with his army, halted the Marhatta ambitions to control the Indian subcontinent. Shah Waliullah's letter to Ahmad Shah Abdali is now regarded as one of the most important historical documents related to the eighteenth century, as Shah Waliullah perceptively described the grave political circumstances in India as well as the numerous dangers the Muslim society faced from all sides.

Shah Waliullah not only had a keen grasp of regional and national politics; he also clearly understood the profound impact of economics. Based on what he saw, he promoted the concept of socio-economic equilibrium, and he deplored the accumulation of wealth, viewing it essentially as the proverbial root of all evil in the world. Further, he advocated a social order that embraced Islamic principles of equality, fraternity, and brotherhood.

Prolific Writer

As his letter to Ahmad Shah Abdali suggests, Shah Waliullah exerted a great deal of influence through his use of the written word. A prolific writer, he assumed a lifetime task of producing standard works on Islamic learning. Within a period of 30 years, he wrote 51 books (23 in Arabic and 28 in Persian). Today, some of his works are still regarded as being unmatched in the entire sphere of Islamic literature.

Scholars tend to classify Shah Waliullah's written works into six categories: those works that deal with the Holy Quran (which includes his Persian translations), those that deal with Hadith, works related to “Fiqh” (or Islamic jurisprudence), works based on mysticism, works dealing with Muslim philosophy and Ilm-i-Kalam, and, finally, the writings that focused on the Shia-Sunni division that had become quite acute during his time.

His most famous works include Fath ur Rahmaan Fee Tarjumatul Qura'an, a translation of the Holy Quran in Persian, and Al Fauzul Kabeer Fee Usool at Tafseer, a booklet written in the Persian language that communicates the core of the Holy Quran and its rules for interpretation. It also reviewed interpretations of the Holy Quran made by other scholars.

Many regard his most renowned work to be the Hujjatullah-il-Balighah, a two-volume manuscript penned in Arabic that detailed jurisprudence for the Hadith, as well as aspects of Islam shared in all Muslim countries. It is still taught in seminaries. The Studying Islam Web site quoted Shah Waliullah in his introduction to this work: “Some people think that there is no usefulness involved in the injunctions of Islamic law and that in actions and rewards as prescribed by God there is no beneficial purpose. They think that the commandments of Islamic law are similar to a master ordering his servant to lift a stone or touch a tree in order to test his obedience and that in this there is no purpose except to impose a test so that if the servant obeys, he is rewarded, and if he disobeys, he is punished. This view is completely incorrect. The traditions of the Holy Prophet (sws) and consensus of opinion of those ages, contradict this view.”

One chapter in the work described the evils of capitalism, which Shah Waliullah believed led to the fall of the Roman and Sassanid empires. Many of his theories relating to economics and socialism are now deemed revolutionary, and he is considered to be a forerunner to Marx. Shah Waliullah criticized the exploitation of the poor and saw it as a fomenter of bloody revolution, which he deplored. Revolution, he felt, should be of a peaceful and intellectual nature, and he believed that an intellectual revolution needed to precede any lasting form of political change. In Izaalat-ul-Khifaa, another of his best-known works, Shah Waliullah fully described the idea of the political revolution that he envisioned.

Shah Waliullah's ideas and values no doubt came in response to the time in which he was born, which has been described as an era of decadence. His ideal vision for the Muslim society was one where all individuals enjoyed complete freedom and rulers based their decisions on the Holy Quran. He was critical of the idle rich, such as the Mughal rulers and India's nobility. The Studying Islam Web site further quoted him writing about this element of society: “Oh Amirs! Do you not fear God? (How is it that) you have so completely thrown yourself into the pursuit of momentary pleasures and have neglected those people who have been committed to your care! The result is that the strong are devouring the (weak) people.”

Influence Lasted Beyond Death

After a lifetime devoted to teaching and writing about Islam, Shah Waliullah died on August 20, 1762. The Muslim leader and reformer was 59 years old. He was buried in “Munhadiyan,” a famous graveyard in India, next to his father. After his death, his son, Shah Abdul Aziz, along with his followers and generations of successors, continued his mission to regenerate the Muslim faith.

Today, he is still highly respected by Muslims throughout Asia. His teachings and tradition live on with the Deoband and Barelvi movements. Later, Shah Abdul Aziz, following in his father's footsteps, translated the Holy Quran into Urdu, the language of the Muslim masses in India. Meanwhile, Shah Waliullah's influence continues to be felt in many religious, social, and political matters.


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“Shah Wali Ullah,” Story of Pakistan,, (November 1, 2007).

“Shah Wali Ullah,” Studying Islam, (November 1, 2007).

“Shah Wali Ullah's Reform Movement [1707–1762],” Story of Pakistan, (November 1, 2007).

“Shah Waliullah,” AllExperts, (November 1, 2007).

“Shah Waliullah,” CSSForum, (November 1, 2007).